The Cinema of Marguerite Duras/Alain Resnais,

Jan Svankmajer, and Peter Greenaway



SUBJUGATE (transitive verb)

1. To bring under control; conquer.

2. To make subservient; enslave. [1]



We have to rebel against manipulation--- by creation, magic, revolt. This rebellion is the road to freedom. Freedom as such does not exist; all that exists is freeing. This freeing, however, does not relieve us of our tragic fate, it only makes it more logical.                                                                                         Jan Svankmajer [2]




In the appendices to Marguerite Duras' 1961 screenplay Hiroshima Mon Amour, there is one phrase that warrants particular attention, primarily because it became the entry point into this paper's enmeshed subject matter. In explaining the post-traumatic madness of the lead character Riva (who was 17 and living in an occupied French village at the end of WWII), Duras writes, "She... has been completely subjugated by desire." Was this meaning that she had become so overcome by her desire--- for her murdered first love--- that it still controlled her emotional state and present actions? The definition of the word subjugate implied so, but its etymology would reveal a more fulfilling paradox; its roots would become parallels to the cinematic investigations undertaken here. To bring under control--- if a character can be subjugated by the events in their personal narrative, is it not these same events which subjugate the audience to the narrative they are witnessing unfold? What does this say about the author's intentions and the viewer's potential response in light of the inherent disjuncture in representation and experience?

I would like to briefly open up the etymological heritage of the word subjugate. Out of the Middle English subjugaten (from Latin subjugatus, past participle of subjugare, from sub- + jugum), comes the word yoke (jugum), which is literally describing the apparatus that encircles the necks of oxen made to do labor for man. It becomes a synonym for heavy labor, bondage, and a two-fold conquering of nature (of both the animals and the land that is being worked). Going further back to the Indo-European root, yeug means to join, which is from the Sanskirt word yoga, meaning union. From these origins, one begins to understand the paradoxical implications of the word subjugate. The harmonious coming together of disparate parts (people, causes, tools) is joined (yeug) to yoke, the forceful joining of subjects to perform a task.

 The task of the narrator is to tell a story. The author has a choice as to how he will present his narrative to the audience. He can posture himself as the interpretive historian and construct the story as a seamless reality his characters inhabit, which is typically done by employing a variety of continuous locations and their appropriate architecture to create the illusion of one temporal reality. [3] The author, however, is certainly under no obligation to do so. The alternative is the construction of an ironic cinema, in which the author uses these same elements (location, architecture, and the continual presence of objects or characters) to draw the audience's attention to the construction of the narrative itself. In the three screenplays I will be discussing herein, many commonalities exist despite their radically different plots.



All of the narratives contain performances within them that are separate from what is to be understood by the audience as the reality of the narrative; their respective authors use these performances as a political metaphor. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, it is the film on Peace that is being shot in Hiroshima. In Jan Svankmajer's 1996 adaptation of Faust, there is the theater of puppets and alternate geographical sets that Dr. Faust becomes assimilated into as he forges his contract with the Devil. Peter Greenaway's 1994 script for The Baby of M‰con is perhaps the most directly exploitive of this concept, in that the film opens with a play being performed that perpetually shifts who the audience is via the camera's revelations. Each screenplay uses theatrical scenery to remind the viewer that one is watching a performance. These performances are actively referencing their own construction, and subsequently, they call into question the concept of representation and the inherent artificiality of the cohesive narrative.


What is... constant... is the irony--- irony as tolerance, as non-dogma, that 'this is only cinema, not life', that there are no longer any certainties--- if indeed there ever were--- and surely no single meanings... (Greenaway in Pascoe 9)


When Greenaway speaks of irony as tolerance and non-dogma, he is referring to the experience he is trying to present to the audience, which could be read as a significant political gesture. Irony [4] is an opening up, a multitudinous unfurling of possibilities. What is critical to these films is that they create the potential for the audience to actively participate in the narrative being performed via the portrayal of several coexisting realities, this in lieu of the more usual technique of presenting the cinematic narrative as one unified reality.

When presented as a cinematic montage, these screenplays draw attention to the fact that the audience is both an observer and a participant in their respective spectacles. 'This is only cinema, not life'--- yet these forms of ironic cinema can at least mimic life in that just as the individual must navigate through the illusions of civilization and its history, these films activate this opening up by introducing the possibilities beyond a one-dimensional narrative.


To 'be framed' (the mise-en-cadre, as Eisenstein puts it, rather than mise-en-sc¸ne) is to be forced into another's structure, a structure that is not of one's own making.

(Pascoe 74)


By nature, the structure of film (or any authored representation) wishes to subjugate its audience. If, however, the author chooses to create other frames within the master cropping of the camera's view, is he not highlighting the artifice of his representation? In the screenplay's I will be discussing, the authors use various forms of scenery as the key signifier of the film's artificial reality, by juxtaposing the main characters understood reality with another physical set. Duras uses a film set, Svankmajer a puppet theater, and Greenaway a constantly expanding and contracting stage.

Marguerite Duras was born a few weeks before the outbreak of World War I in the French colony of Indochina. She was eighteen when she moved to France, and witnessed both the Occupation and the Rˇsistance during World War II. Her husband was sent to Dachau and was brought back by Fran¨ois Mitterrand after the Liberation. She was also a member of the Communist party from the time of the Liberation until the Prague uprising in 1950. The details of her actual personal history versus the fictionalized experiences in her writing are difficult to decipher.



Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film connecting a brief love affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress, and the Frenchwoman's flashback's of her love affair with a German soldier during World War II. In the opening scene, the viewer is presented with close-up shots of bodies interlaced in lovemaking. The character's voices begin to talk of Hiroshima as the images of their bodies become inter-cut with footage of the city immediately after the bombing and later, after the city has been rebuilt and the event memorialized. This scene not only serves an introduction to the film's subject matter and characters, but also immediately informs the audience of its construction. This film is not going to be an illusionary unfolding of one narrative. Jarring cinematic devices expose the execution of the film. Montage is used to bridge the characters supposed present with archival footage as their voices simultaneously recall their personal memories of the event. Later, the shooting of an anti-war film in Hiroshima becomes another drama being enacted within the film. With a pointed lack of formality, Duras introduces the film taking place within the film. Riva has fallen asleep in the shade of a tree just adjacent to where the last scene of the film on Peace is being shot. She has finished performing her role in it and is now continuing on in the narrative we are watching develop.


An important note: we will never see the technicians in the distance and will never know what film it is they're shooting at Hiroshima. All we'll ever see is scenery being taken down.                                                (Duras 39)


In his directorial reworking of the script, Alain Resnais makes the audience aware of the inner film's tools of production: the actors, their props, the cinematographer and his camera.



While watching the shooting of the anti-war film take place on the periphery of the main action, the audience is most consciously reminded that they themselves are watching a film that, at some point prior, was produced using the same means. Duras writes, "All we'll ever see is scenery being taken down." Resnais makes this gesture more explicit by turning the film's human participants into scenery as well. The extras that march in the Peace parade and the crew filming them are oblivious to the actions of the main characters in the narrative the audience is being told. The audience's potential to identify with the story's characters is held suspended in the folds of the narrative itself. The closed social model of film becomes an open system once again when directors choose to privilege narrative fissures over continuity. 

Jan Svankmajer was born in Prague in 1934, and by the age of twenty-four, was using a combination of puppets, live actors and actors dressed as puppets in his productions [5] . Shortly after having officially joined the Czech Surrealist Group, Svankmajer began to have censorship difficulties with the Czech authorities. In 1972 he was banned from making films for seven years, and was allowed to start working again under the premise that he limit his productions to the adaptation of literary classics. In November 1989, the Czech Communist government collapsed. Although elated at first, Svankmajer realized that the end of Communism was not the end of human repression. Nowhere is this metaphor more pronounced than in his second feature-length film Faust. 

The cumulative adaptation [6] of Svankmajer's Faust opens in present day Prague with the lead character receiving a flyer from two men, Cornelius and Valdes.

After tossing it away in the street, Faust returns home to find his apartment floor smattered with the droppings of a chicken. Confused and annoyed, he throws the culprit out of his apartment and cleans up the mess. As he sits down to eat dinner, a great wind blows open his street-facing window, scattering his mail and papers throughout his apartment. From the window, he notices the two men from earlier standing in the street holding the hen.


They are looking up at the window of Faust's flat. Their eyes, however, are nothing but whites with black veins-- they have no pupils... Faust...draws the curtain and goes back to the table.... Cornelius and Valdes take the "glass" whites from their eyes and go away.        (Svankmajer 6)


 This is the first instance of Svankmajer using theatrical costuming to show a disjuncture between Faust's perception and the illusion that the Devil is effecting in order to acquire Faust's soul. Immediately following this initial disturbance, Faust recollects the strewn papers and is again confronted with the same flyer he received earlier in the street. He follows the map printed on the flyer, which eventually leads him into a baroque puppet theater. He enters the dressing room of the theater and begins to costume himself with clothing and make-up lying around the room. As Faust forges his relationship with the Devil, he becomes more and more integrated into the marionette's performances, until at last his body is outfitted with a large wood head and unseen puppeteers control his movements. Shot sequencing and the incorporation of stylized scenery into locations outside of the stage work to undermine and confuse the audience's perception of locality.

Faust signs a contract in his own blood, promising his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers. Desiring to exhibit his new powers, Faust commands Mephisto to take him to the King of Portugal's birthday celebration. 

Faust is transported from the theater's stage to an exterior location in the countryside, where the marionette King and his puppet court sit in the real garden of a castle. At the King's request, Faust calls forth David and Goliath, but his performance is soon revealed to be a mere illusion; the men are not flesh and blood, but painted, wood cutouts. The King is angered by the farce and the humiliated Faust responds wrathfully by drowning the King and his party. Two-dimensional waves of water overcome the marionettes, but when the scene finally ends, their disjointed wood heads and arms are floating in real water. Svankmajer uses his visual juxtapositions of illusion and reality (from the marionettes in the countryside to the man who acts on stage with puppets) as a metaphor for man who continues to be manipulated by social systems. [7]

Peter Greenaway was born in Wales in 1942, and moved to England three years later. As a twelve year old growing up in one of the last surviving monarchies, Greenaway decided he wanted to become a painter. His interest in categorization and the instruments of science and representation was perhaps first peaked by his father, who was an ornithologist. In 1965, after studying painting at university, he started working for the Central Office of Information and creating short experimental films. He spent eleven years there as a film editor (and later, a director), during which he viewed extensive amounts of stock and news footage. This time period drew his attention ever more precisely to the concepts of category and representation, which continue to form the base content of his artwork to this day.

Greenaway's screenplay for The Baby of M‰con attempts to expose the illusions of cinema and humanity through the use of stage sets and painting-like scenes. It begins with a play in which an obese, veiled women is going into labor.


Her contractions quicken as we are introduced to the audience who is still entering and being seated. The audience is comprised of members of the aristocracy and the clergy, professionals, tradesmen, shop-owners, and servants, who are arranged in the theater in accordance with the local social hierarchy. The guest of honor is the 17 year-old Prince Cosimo Medici, who is seated closest to the stage with his entourage. The pregnant woman is strapped into a birthing chair as the onstage actors sing about the present time of plague and infertility. Finally, and to everyone's surprise-- so much so that the midwives have to quickly hide a stand-in wood baby under the bed--- a real and beautiful baby boy is born onstage. The child's birth is greatly celebrated by the actors and the audience, who will become confusingly interchangeable as the film progresses. Greenaway relies on camera movements to expose or hide what is to be understood as scenery (theatrical space) or actual architecture (real space).


As soon as the crowd around the child and the wet-nurse has moved--- we realize that the scenery in the background has changed--- we are not in the theater--- but in a street or market-place in a mid-seventeenth century town...

(Greenaway 55)


The child is first exploited by his virgin sister (who recreates herself as the Madonna while imprisoning her parents in a cage), and secondly by the Church (who allow the daughter to be falsely sentenced and killed in order to secure control of the child). The narrative questions man's use of deception and manipulation (through ego and spectacle) by revealing its literal illusions. Each action in the narrative has been a performance, witnessed by an audience. In the final scene, the camera moves further and further back from the original stage, and in doing so reveals several more layers of audience that even we as the film's viewer, were unaware of.



The film scripts of Duras, Svankmajer and Greenaway were written with the intent of actively engaging the audience in their narratives. The films produced from these scripts demand the viewer to ask himself: what is not performance, what is not illusion? These authors have engaged in the act of freeing the audience from its usual position as a subjugated, passive observer, by metaphorically showing the viewer the yoke that encircles his neck. These authors have instead invited the viewer to actively contemplate the content of the film, and subsequently the role one play's in the greater social system.













[1] A brief definition and lineage is available at:

[2] Excerpt from the Faust shooting diary in the Preface of the published script (Svankmajer xiii).

[3] "In literary-historical analysis differences and extremes are brought together in order that they might be revitalized in evolutionary terms; in conceptual treatment they acquire the status of complementary forces, and history is seen as no more than the colored border to their crystalline simultaneity. From the point of view of the philosophy of art the extremes are necessary; the historical process is merely virtual." (Benjamin 38)

[4] The online encyclopedic source Wikipedia states: "All the different senses of irony... revolve around the notion of incongruity, or a gap between our understanding and what actually happens."

[5] Svankmajer uses this combination in his graduation production of King Stag by Carlo Gozzi at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts.

[6] Peter Hames' (Svankmajer BC) describes the script as: "Combing the versions [of Faust] by Goethe, Marlowe and Grabbe, Gounod's opera, folk puppetry, medieval ritual and contemporary reality..."

[7] Svankmajer describes his 20th century Faust as "... caught in an ill-defined mental, political and economic trap, manipulated still in a post-Stalinist world." (Svankmajer BC)












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