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Absis-Duras : a friendship on screen (interview with Absis)

Absis & Judit Naranjo Ribó

Judit Naranjo Ribó

Since this session puts your friendship with Marguerite Duras on the screen, my first question is factual. How did you meet?

Absis

When I discovered India Song in Cannes when it was released (1974), I felt an electrochoc of happiness and voluptuousness. So I wanted to write about the film and meet Duras. I asked Libération if they were interested. They said yes. I conducted this first interview at her home in rue Saint-Benoît and we immediately hit it off. In 1975, I found Marguerite by chance at the Toulon festival. These festivals with a non-market vocation are fascinating: be it the one in Toulon which became the festival of Hyères, or those of La Rochelle or Prades. These places encourage real encounters. It is in Toulon that I met Michael Lonsdale, for example. At the end of the festival, Marguerite offered to drive me back to Paris with her son Jean Mascolo. She was driving. And so I found myself for a few days in her house in Neauphle-le-Château. On this occasion, a very great and strong friendship was born between us. We saw each other all the time. We had a great complicity on everything. Cinema, men, desire, death, literature, life. We laughed, we had fun, we messed around… I would arrive at her house at 1am and we could talk until 3am. She was not at all serious, the opposite of the austere image that some people had of her. She loved to live, to laugh…

At that time, we used to meet almost every evening with friends. There were most often Michelle Porte, Geneviève Dufour, Jean Mascolo, Carlos d’Alessio, Raoul Escari, Dominique Noguez, Bulle Ogier, Armando Llamas and, from time to time, Adolfo Arrieta, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig, Claude Regy… We often frequented the Jean-Louis Barrault theater, today the Musée d’Orsay, where Marguerite’s plays were staged.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

The 70s…

Absis

It was a great time. In Paris, a perfume of magic floated, allowing encounters. Creation. It was an airy city… open, rich in everything.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

At that time, you were a journalist?

Absis

Let’s say that I was part of the marginal people of the time. Like many young people of my age, I spent my life at the Cinémathèque rather than at the university… As Godard says, even if we are not of the same generation: “we were born at the Cinémathèque”.

After my first interview with Duras for Libération, I published some texts on films that I liked. In particular on Jean Genet’s experimental film Chant d’Amour. Then, I wrote for Sorcières [1], a non-mixed feminist magazine created by Xavière Gauthier, and where Marguerite also collaborated. Marguerite generated a lot of movement around her. It is this context that made me want to make films.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

This brings us to Cygne I and Cygne II, which you directed in 1976.

Absis

These are two sequence shots that last the time of a 35 mm reel, a little more than ten minutes. The first one stages a double persona on a music of Monteverdi (Ariadne’s lamento interpreted by Janet Baker). The second, more elaborate, is constructed like an animated painting in a single fixed shot where light, voice, music and movements interfere.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

From desire to filmmaking: how does this path become clear?

Absis

I had to say “I want to make a film…”. My friend Bruno Nuytten had agreed to do the picture. Everything started from the text. It is the text that is prior to the staging.

For Cygne I, I asked Marguerite to say it, off. I wrote the one for Cygne II with Michael Lonsdale’s voice in mind. He read it and said “I accept, this text is magnificent!

The sets? I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to shoot in the high school where my father was principal. It was there and not elsewhere. It was his wife Colette, who is a painter, who built perfectly the sets I had imagined. The whole team came to this suburban high school on the day of shooting. We shot both films on the same day.

In Cygne I, Lizzie Lennard is lying naked, beautiful, in the foreground. I, her double, am standing at the piano from behind and singing in playback. For Cygne II, there is Colette Fellous, today’s author, Jean-Baptiste Malartre and myself.

On the shooting, there was the team, but also Marguerite, Michelle Porte and the producer François Barrat (Cinema 9, editor’s note).

We sent the music at the same time as we filmed. For Cygne I, Ariadne’s Lamento is performed in its entirety and in this time, the scene was played out as in the theater. But I hadn’t thought about the discrepancy between the speed of the images and that of the sound. As a result, when we saw the rushes, the singer’s back was pulsating against the beat.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

In that case, how did you get the film back?

Absis

It was Marguerite who saved the film by completely reworking the editing so that the rhythm would be right. A titanic task that I would have been incapable of.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

And after the shoot?

Absis

During the shooting, I felt exhilarated, in a daze, as if hypnotized. But afterwards, when I saw the rushes, it was a blow. I have just found an anonymous text titled Cygnes in the magazine Sorcières n°3 “Se prostituer”(2)  where I evoke this moment of uneasiness. I don’t think it’s only because I was playing in it… It’s because it touches something strong, intense, forbidden… There is something that escaped me, and that’s fine.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

Did you accompany the films in the months after they were made?

Absis

Let us rather say that the films made their way: to Beaubourg’s Cinémathèque, to Italy, to several universities. Dominique Noguez took care of them. For some theaters, he had a 16 mm print made. In Toulon, the first festival where Marcel Mazé had programmed them, I was there. But I had to leave the theater because Cygne II terrorizes me. Later, we went to La Rochelle with Marguerite: she presented Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert and I presented Cygne I and Cygne II. There was Wim Wenders who presented his work, but we had left the room, we could not stay with his cinema … I think there is a female cinema. A way of filming women that is different, right?

Judit Naranjo Ribó

Yes, I think so…

Absis

Films by women… There is a specificity. In the way of filming, in the sensitivity, the approach…

Judit Naranjo Ribó

Is it the images, is it the point of view?

Absis

It’s the carnal way of filming. The wide, slow movements. I’ve seen that a lot with women. Something very voluptuous… No untimely shot/countershot. No shot too short. Too tight. What’s your opinion?

Judit Naranjo Ribó

I quite agree with you. I think it’s a different gaze, more bodily, on the world. The women’s bodies are more committed in the way it looks at the world, or different, contemplating and thinking cinema in a more tangible, material way… Maybe voluptuous, as you said. It’s true, in that matter, that this bodily aspect if often visible in experimental film, which are more sensual and sensitive.  I think of Marie Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki, who we talked about in a previous call, who have a wholly corporal relationship with cinema.

What happened in the 1980s, was there a turning point?

Absis

With Marguerite we saw each other less because of her meeting with Yann Andréa. That changed everything. She was not the same anymore. She had lost her zest for life and didn’t see her old friends much anymore. In 1981 she directed L’Homme Atlantique, very close to Yann Andréa and with a different energy. There is something in this film, made one year before La maladie de la mort, that somehow settles a score.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

When you watched L’Homme Atlantique, you told me that there was a link with your two films. It is the viewer, his or her gaze, that is tried throughout the film.

Absis

True. This was very important in my film. It is only natural that it follows from one to the other. You will see, when you watch my film Cygne II, the way I questionned this relationship. In her case, it’s different. She is at a different time of her life… This was the case when we met: she had a long experience of life behind her while mine was really short. We belonged to a different generation. I wonder what made us meet like this. Maybe the woman she was, the ones she imagined and her relationship to herself. At the time, I was a very free young woman. Maybe it echoed some of the characters in her imagination, her fantasies. It’s hard to know what creates a strong friendship and what you inspire in others.

Judit Naranjo Ribó

There’s probably a complicity that you can’t control, that you can’t always tell.

Absis

I remember the smell of her hair. She used to put violet in it, in that hair. She had a very charismatic presence that I liked very much… She liked to sew, to cook, to drive, to cultivate the garden. I did not. In an interview I did with her that appeared in Sorcières 3, she ended by saying “I hate myself, what I love is my desire”. Maybe we’ll stop here, because it brings up too many emotions.

1

All 24 thematic issues are available online : https://femenrev.persee.fr/collection/sorci

Credits: images extracted from the contact sheets of the photos made by Jean Mascolo during the shooting in 1976.