Beauty of Two Souls in Flesh vs. a Child’s Stubborn Vitality

Logic of vitality and logic of eternity

Duras (with a cigarette in her left hand) on the set of “Nathalie Granger”

Two enigmatic characters of the film – Isabelle (Lucia Bose) and “Other woman” (Jeanne Moreau) look at the world from outside (from their psychological interiority blissfully isolated from the world). This shot represents not only imprisonment motif (becoming imprisoned in your own internal world), but the destiny of traditional spirituality the very essence of which is not being mixed with the world – to deny its objective value.

That’s how the traditional spirituality looks at the world. Do we see here the suffering of both heroines for not belonging to the regular world or suffering of spirituality about very existence of such an imperfect condition as life in a “fallen” world?

Tranquility and wisdom, asceticism and harmony – is the atmosphere of the house where heroines of the film are living.

Their mutual help and care for each other, sensitivity of their very empathy for one another are exemplary and admirable.

They are never in solitude – each always feels the presence of the other even when they are separated by a wall or chores of everyday life.

Burning dried leaves and twigs is their habitual distraction – they give themselves to this as if it is some kind of religious ritual, as if burning dead life was somehow significant. Making fire for them has a connotation of separation from life and death, of cleansing the world from life.

Jeanne Moreau’s “disappearance” in smoke has the significance of magical or even witchy event.

They are looking at how fire transforms dead life into burning and the clean matter of the ashes. The alchemy of witnessing death’s disappearance is an important metaphysical experience.

While getting an unexpected visit from an enthusiastic salesman trying to sell what they don’t need, two women don’t believe that he is really a salesman. It’s not that they suspect him of something – they are just graciously skeptical about everything that is a part of the universe of regular human life.

Under the penetrating power of their gazes the beginner-salesman feels so hopelessly trivial that he barely can continue his efforts. But he is also amazed by the power of their personalities – smashed by it.

In this shot we see how Isabelle and her friend patiently listen to the complaints about Nathalie’s behavior. They are visibly distressed – they don’t understand from where the little girl’s aggressive outbursts could come. They suffer but masterfully contain their torment.

Sometimes they meditatively give themselves over to the melancholy of the existence.

Their house has the air of an almost metaphysical impenetrability and absoluteness.

Duras’ camera permanently plays on the magic dialectic of presence/absence of two main characters that makes their presence as ambiguous as their absence. The both conditions become relative. The very distinction between being and non-being loses its certainty.

Sometimes Duras’s camera registers the transitional moments between characters’ presence and absence (as if their incarnation and disincarnating).

The young man who tries to establish himself as a salesman is attempting to breach the two heroines’ unreachability.

Mesmerized, the young salesman gives himself to the feeling of awe about these incredible, “superhuman” women, but his fear of their internal power makes him want to flee.

The character of Gerard Depardieu feels that in this house he loses himself, is transformed into a “nobody“, becomes empty of his vitality. Duras sees traditional spirituality as being much more alienating than soulless work.

What’s happening to Nathalie, living in a stable household with two really caring women – mother and “aunt”? Why her gaze got this stubborn strain? What exactly is she resisting in her life?

Nathalie’s emotional needs are attended through tranquil and rational reactions of two highly intelligent women and through the sublime channel of music that has been deservedly revered already for several centuries. Who can be more successful than Johan Sebastian Bach in making a child’ soul more sublime, purer and nobler? Besides, the very emotions of her care givers are like giant lakes cooling Nathalie’s yearnings. But it makes all the sense that Duras in “Nathalie…” focuses her radical critical gaze on archaic spiritual pedagogy.

Jeanne Moreau’s heroine implies that her blissful closeness to Nathalie and her kindness will heal the trouble spots in the child’s soul whatever may the reasons be for their appearance in the first place. But…

…children are little pagans – they have to learn the world of flesh before they will be ready for an encounter with spiritual criticism of this world. They have the right to love world, its materiality, its fleshness (they are programmed to). Spirituality (especially the old-fashioned one) is for late teenagers and adults, but this world belongs to children. Only if children are allowed to love the world they will be able to discover what is other to the flesh without resistance. This idea, it seems, is the inspiration and the pathos of Duras’s film. “Nathalie…” is a psychological argument for the existential wisdom of spirituality, for a necessity for its existentialization. If the fluids of transcendent reality Nathalie experiences at home could be inside the frame of life – this could prevent her feeling that her desires and dreams are not welcomed by her caregivers. It is this Nathalie’s impression that brings about her aggressive reaction.

Nathalie’s resistance to over-worldly spirituality is transformed into her hate for the world because she unconsciously imitates the position of traditional spirituality towards the world (its gaze at the world from outside of it). She wants to love the world but identification with her authoritative caregivers prevents it, and love in her deteriorates into aggression.

The two beautiful women – simultaneously queenly and modest, a mixture of self-respect and humility, saints and witches, a kind of emancipated secular nuns – live in tranquility of a metaphysical interior of their old fashioned house. They have perfect emotional rapport with each other when empathy and ascetic compassion is combined with independence to be yourself.

“Nathalie Granger” is an experiment relying on the power of allusion – on appeal to viewers’ intuition (to their ability to complete what the director initiated with responsibility and courage). Lucia Bose and Jeanne Moreau don’t act the surface emotions but concentrate on the configuration of the soul in both main characters living on the margins of the city and keeping autonomy from others. They could be happy in their way of life – of house work and attending the nature around the house, if not recent problem: strange twists in behavior of the daughter of one of them – an intelligent and sensitive girl of pre-adolescent age.

The bad news about the girl came from the school as thunder from the clean sky – her unexpected outbursts of violent emotions and actions. Soon some strange moments in Nathalie’s conduct started to happen at home. Two friends started to worry although their concern didn’t expressed itself in any obvious way – not to frighten or provoke Nathalie to act out even more. The signs of emotional distress in Nathalie were perfectly contained by two sophisticated inhabitants of the periphery of the human world.

What is the matter with Nathalie? Why these outbursts? Materially she has everything. Emotionally she is bathing in the attention of Lucia Bose and Jeanne Moreau. Of course, their kind of care, may be, a little too reserved – not that it is meant to be reserved, but it is…wise, it’s… spiritual. It pedagogically communicates to the child the spiritual distance between human beings, not distance in a sense of alienation, but in a sense of respect for independence of the young person from adults.

Step by step we, the viewers of the film, start to grasp as to what may be the problem between Nathalie and the pedagogy of other-worldly spiritual wisdom – can it be that spiritual people are too spiritual to be good pedagogues? Even when they are not an authoritarian, even when they are really spiritual as, no doubt, two heroines of the Duras’ film are, their very position towards “this world” can be the problem. Doesn’t successful pedagogy need an element of “primitive” emotional symbiosis to get its message across? For successful understanding of the message the child needs identification with a pedagogue by similarity, the most basic form of identification. Nathalie has to learn from her caregivers not just how to live, not just how to feel about the world, but what the world is like, what kind of a human being she has to become as an adult. In this situation even a noble, wise and kind estrangement between the child and adults who teach respectful distancing in order to prevent development of the potential for violence in human relationships, is not enough. More, even anti-authoritarian over-worldly spirituality as a pedagogy can exactly create violent reaction that it tries to prevent.

It seems Duras put her fingers on the very incompatibility between non-existential spirituality and pedagogy. The topic and style of the film move beyond the problem between Nathalie and her spiritually impeccable caregivers. The film becomes an analysis of the relationship between human life and traditional spirituality. Duras’s point, it seems, is that spirituality as it was traditionally understood cannot be effective and may well be harmful to children. Traditional spirituality (even without its widespread authoritarian deviation) creates resistance not only to itself but to its alternative – existential spirituality. A child grows into a violent adult because he/she never got an emotionally enveloped knowledge of what earthly life is and can be. Nathalie’s frustration is a result of blocking at a too early age her innocent desire to extend herself into the world.

Scene with the salesman (Gerard Depardieu) is introduced into the film in order to, it seems, clear its main point about the inadequacy of anti-existential spirituality as pedagogy for Nathalie. Her mother and her “aunt” didn’t believe that the guy is a real salesman – above-life spiritual posture made them not to trust this world.

“Nathalie Granger” is a unique research into the problem of incompatibility between traditional spirituality and child psychology. Not less impressive is that traditional spirituality is represented without any obvious social attributes (uniformed clergy or religious rituals) but in its psychological essence. These two incredible women – angels or ghosts – balance one another to the immobility of eternity. The film is a daring and paradoxical representation of traditional spirituality by purely secular, purely aesthetic means, without any direct reference to it. In a sense, the film is metaphysics to the hilt and simultaneously criticism of metaphysics.

Marguerite Duras