The Sea View: Marguerite Duras in Trouville

Adam Scovell visits the writer and filmmaker’s iconic home

J’ai tout vu. Tout.”

“I have seen everything. Everything.”

Hiroshima, Mon Amour, (1959)

In the summer of 1963, Marguerite Duras bought an apartment on the coast of Normandy. From then on, she would retreat to the safety of its pale light, travelling there from her various homes in Paris and Neauphle-le-Château every summer until the year of her death. Sometimes she would venture to the room at more desolate times of the year, when the beaches were empty and storm clouds hung heavy in the sky, especially when using the location for her filmmaking. The apartment was housed in the grand building of the Hôtel des Roches Noires in Trouville-sur-Mer and played a pivotal role in her work. If I consider her unprecedented output, something I often find myself doing, the first images that spring to mind are usually of Trouville; its hazy skies, long beaches and cafes providing shelter from the elements.

Les Roches Noires, as it is now called, is an eerily quiet place in winter. Yet its architecture is filled with busier qualities, as if soaked in the voices of thousands of travellers from La Belle Époque, the era that its vast windows, ornate ceilings and extravagant stairways cannot help but suggest. It was completed in 1866 by Alphonse-Nicolas Crépinet, an architect who, among other things, designed the tomb in Les Invalides for Joseph Bonaparte, brother to the first emperor. Constructed as close to the sea as possible, the building is remarkable in having survived the endless tides. On the right day, a view from its windows creates the illusion of being literally cast adrift.

Crépinet’s building was a great success with the travelling rich of Paris and became a symbol of the increasingly popular holidaying trends of the age. It was a veritable rival to those hotels over the water in neighbouring Deauville, cashing in on the bourgeoisie’s growing taste for coastal retreats. ‘I will be staying at the hotel… where you will probably stay,’ wrote Marcel Proust in a letter to Reynaldo Hahn in 1894, ‘because it is the best…’ Proust would live up to his word, staying a number of times at Les Roches Noires and featuring it in his unfinished novel Jean Santeuil. Even Gustave Flaubert fell madly in love there, though he is commemorated for his connection to the area by a statue in Deauville rather than Trouville.

Hôtel des roches noires. Trouville, Claude Monet

My initial encounter with the building perfectly fitted those same romantic images. I first saw it in Claude Monet’s 1870 painting, a print that had faded into a foggy turquoise and was hanging on the bathroom wall of a Paris bar. Like so much shrouded by nostalgia, the lavish yet simple world depicted in the painting – the flow of dresses hidden from the sun by parasols, men gallantly doffing hats to passing women and colours so soft as to be almost carried away on the breeze – masked the reality of Monet’s life then. He was on the move due to the coming Franco-Prussian War and had nowhere to live, perhaps homing towards his native Le Havre or drawn by possible new adventures further away in London.

Duras’ relationship with the building feels similar to Monet’s, albeit Monet could do little else except sit and paint it from the outside, being too expensive for the struggling artist at the time. Duras’ similar sense of retreat is palpable in her writing from the moment she obtains the room. Her work, so often about loss perceived in hindsight, increasingly resembles the view from the building’s windows; heartache’s horizon threatening to never cease until sea and sky become one. Whether in work drawing on her colonial childhood in French Indochina such as The Sea Wall or The Lover, or more abstract, Beckettian work like Emily L. or Yann Andréa Steiner, the voice within is always hollowed by loss or at least in anticipation of it.

Loss permeates her film work too, with her voice and presence directly at its centre. The mode becomes arguably more brutally confessional than her prose. Even when simply on script duty, such as her most celebrated collaboration in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Duras’ work still contains stormy seas and subdued voices contemplating horizons, personal and actual. Whether on film or in novels, the perspective gained from being in the building on Trouville’s coast is often present. Emotional recollection seems to be brought in on the tide.

When searching for images of the writer, one of the most prominent that appears is a photograph by Helène Bamberger taken in the foyer of the building in 1981. Ghostly with the absence of people, Duras is transfixed by the view out to sea. The building feels as if it has floated away from the land. A huge part of her creative process is captured in this photograph. You can almost hear the ripples of her recollections. From seeing this photo, the building seemed to me to be a key to understanding her complex body of work, not simply as setting but as stimulus.

Her work has a sea view, and I was determined to share it.

Le jour baisse.’

‘The day is falling.’

– L’amour (1971)

The gates quietly opened for the car, activated by a small device handed over at the agents in Deauville. Already the fact that no one was there was apparent. Being February, and with a number of storms due to hit the coastline that week, the Parisians who undoubtedly now own many of the lavish rooms in Les Roches Noires were still in the capital where they would likely remain until the weather warmed up. I had travelled there with my partner, a shared gift for missing our anniversary a few weeks earlier due to the launch of a novel.

The building made me giddy with excitement as it was already clear which room was Duras’, deduced from a photo I had seen showing it to be a corner which partly faced the road as well as the sea. I knew I was in the right place because of the architecture. The fact that a Wi-Fi connection popped up on my phone simply labelled “MARGUERITE” also helped. The doorway within was curved and led to what was once the hotel’s reception, the main room that Duras used for filming and for many of her author portraits. The sound of the sea haunted the corridors as if its rooms were filled with waves.

The alcoves that once housed the hotel’s many keys were filled with beautiful books, old editions by Gallimard, Folio and Le Livre de Poche. The picture of Duras taken in the foyer’s main window hung on a wall; and then everything else was exactly as it had always been. The alluring sky-filled vista, the chairs with their rounded arms and headrests, the delicate painting of nineteenth-century tourists along the border of the ceiling and, most hypnotic of all the room’s ornamentations, two opposing mirrors infinitely reflecting the whole space.

The day was fading into evening and, after falling in love with our own small room – itself like a living painting – my partner and I sat together in the foyer and watched the sunset. In her underrated work L’amour (1971), Duras describes witnessing this perfectly. ‘In the distance,’ she wrote, ‘the sea is already oxidised by dark light, as is the sky.’ Even L’amour’s modern cover is adorned with a photo of this view, as if it completely summarises the text. The light was alchemical in its collapse and, seen through the thin panes of glass, invited our humble silence as we stood enraptured in each other’s arms.

The vastness of the room (or perhaps the mirrored illusion of vastness) augmented our very language, each statement of affection hanging in solitude for a few moments longer than usual, as if the very design of the building forced us to consider our words more carefully. Language required greater deftness when in Les Roches Noires, its echoes heightening self-awareness. The salty breeze blew the cobwebs off several months’ worth of our usual digital messaging over long distance, communication now rendered pleasurably precise and close.

In her film Agatha and the Limitless Readings (1981), Duras breaks cinema using this same patience enforced by the building. She was rather proud of this, writing in an essay about her work that ‘All of the world’s filmmakers are beneath what I write for the cinema.’ It was her filmmaking that first drew me to her rather than her literature, simply because it was more readily available. Her cinema was brazenly radical, unafraid of being texts as opposed to visual narratives, an unusual but essential extension of her writing. Her fellow Nouveau Roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet felt the same about his cinema.

A scene in Agatha shot in the foyer highlights Duras’ radical but stoic vision. The actress Bulle Ogier is walking slowly towards the mirror of the room. The camera is fixed and is there: we can see it. There is no deception or cleverly angled shot to hide the bulky mechanism and its crew. Its presence is a quiet violence, becoming the watcher who Duras addresses in the voice-over. My life is real, she is saying, and so are my words even when used as a voice-over for a film. This is my winter. That is my sea you can hear. This is my heartbreak.

I couldn’t resist recreating this shot, falling into the infinity of the mirrors. I aimed my Polaroid camera dead centre and evaporated with the flash, providing the image with the sort of absence more typically expected from a film, albeit not one by Duras. My partner was perusing the books at the time, looking for an alternative to the one she had brought on the trip. We were both absent in that instant but it made our reunion moments later unusually elated, as if having both travelled and returned as we watched the Polaroid develop. It’s easy to leave your body and its ongoing moment in Les Roches Noires.

That night, the inky darkness of the coast was all consuming. The sea continued to crash against the beach as my partner and I listened to the wind rattling the window frames. We soon faded into each other and disappeared, falling pleasurably together as the storm hit the shoreline. Being the only occupants in the imposing building made us even more delirious, until all that remained was our heavy breathing and the waves. ‘They are silent. They watch the progress of the outer dawn,’ as Duras wrote in L’amour. That was our morning too.

Elle a dit encore: “Vous avez la chance de vivre un amour inaltérable, et vous aurez un jour celle d’en mourir.”’

‘She said as well: “You have the good fortune to live an unalterable love, and one day die from it.”’

– Agatha and the Limitless Readings (1981)

‘You cannot drink here,’ the man said in French. His voice was like gravel, rendering his words as mere crumbling cadences before I slowly understood what he was saying. The instructions restricting a variety of things in the historic foyer of Les Roches Noires had been neatly hidden in an ornate frame on the wall. Like the vital letter from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, it had been totally ignored. He was the caretaker of the building and, having already felt that it resembled The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – resulting in daydreams about what an adaptation of Stephen King’s story would have looked like if directed by Duras – thought it best to obey.

The foyer is powerfully inviting all the same. Its design means it feels more than a little natural to sit there drinking and eating, watching the elements outside shift with the sands. The pleasure derives from knowingly sharing in pastimes enjoyed by travellers in eras gone by. It’s a pleasure of continuity. With drinking not being possible, my partner and I returned with just our books; mine a recently published collection of Duras’ essays, Me & Other Writing, hers a novel by Françoise Sagan. Reading there felt out of time, so to speak. We could have been sat within almost any period or, more unusually, no period at all. ‘The sea seems to be sleeping,’ suggests the narrator of Agatha. For all that could be gleaned from the view, only occasionally interspersed with a passing walker braving the storm, time felt frozen outside.

The place transmits a calming effect due its illusions of temporal stasis. It was different to places specifically marketed as relaxing or inspiring. Images of wellness centres and ritualistic attempts at writerly self-discovery were swept away by the salty air and quietude of the ghostly location; an ironic quietude considering the sound of the sea was always present, marine grace notes flooding between our words.

Duras experienced this tranquillity too, perhaps explaining why she found such richly productive solace there. ‘I do remember there was a kind of tranquillity stretching all over the sea and over us.’ she writes in Emily L., another of her underrated novels which examines loss on the coast, albeit one further north nearer Le Havre. The sea retains strange qualities in her writing, allowing for a watery human reflection.

After eating in Le Central, another of Duras’ regular haunts near Trouville’s casino, we wandered through the shining streets before sheltering in cafes as strong winds blew invisible blankets of sand through the air. A stencil of Duras was sprayed onto the wall of the public library, adorned with a quote suggesting an amorous affair between words and sentences: ‘Faire d’un mot le bel amant d’un phrase.’ Along the beach were a number of blue benches adorned with many names. I sat on the one bearing Duras’ name and kissed my partner, sheltering in each other’s arms and coat pockets. Another rain shower threatened so the warmth of the room beckoned, boasting its pale panorama of the land around viewed handily from the comfort of its bed.

Our trip was soon over, having shared in Duras’ view for as long as our small budget could last. We stood one last time in the foyer watching another afternoon drift into evening, the light stealing our breath away. Colours smouldered so distinctively that, even in constant flux, they seemed almost solid. ‘The air was blue,’ Duras wrote in L’amour, ‘you could hold it in your hand.’ When the azure caught fire and burned finally into charcoal, my partner took my hand and we wandered back to the room. Our eyes were still drenched in sky as we happily drifted together again, lost in each other as the tide murmured outside and the sea view turned to darkness.


Adam Scovell reflects on the the forgotten landscapes of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher

A boy is looking out of a window. The view is of an oily looking canal surrounded by patches of scrubland. This isn’t a picturesque vision, a canal tidied up by renovation or gentrification, but a stretch of grey-green water running through the city of Glasgow. Its banks are strewn with rubbish yet still defiantly green, the vegetation growing in contrast to the concrete buildings around it. The boy is so drawn to this landscape, and the fact that his friend is playing in this childish Xanadu, that he skives off from accompanying his mother to see his imprisoned father, and opts instead to explore and play in this realm. His excitement turns to fear however as the game he plays with his friend ends with terrible consequences.

This is the opening scenario from Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature film, Ratcatcher (1999). Turning twenty this November, the film has lost none of its power or sense of place, rendered with enough skill to see it enter the Un Certain Regard at Cannes and go on to win a slew of awards. Though Ramsay is now a respected cinematic name thanks to American features such We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and the recent You Were Never Really Here (2017), her sense of place is never bettered or more radical than in Ratcatcher; a personal project that portrays derelict and forgotten landscapes in a deeply innovative and idiosyncratic way.

Ramsay’s film is set during the bin strike that hit Glasgow in late 1974 and which ran for several consecutive months before concluding in April 1975. We see the world through the eyes of James (William Eadie), a young boy stuck in the one of crumbling council estates of the city, soon to be moved to one of the new-build suburbs sprouting on the outskirts. James must wrestle with both his conscience and his environment as the film opens with his actions leading to the death of his young friend in the littered canal behind his municipal block. The film is more of a personal exploration, examining how tough landscapes and their equally tough communities are experienced by those forced to subdue their own sensitivity, emotionally and physically.

Though dealing with emotional fallout and the strain on relationships that poverty exerts, Ratcatcher is still a portrait of a place. Even putting aside the bin strike that leaves the streets filled with mounds of rubbish, rotting material and bags writhing with rats, the landscape is still defiantly unromantic. Ramsay is continuing in an unusually British tradition of taking note of such places and, while never attempting to see them through any sort of pastoral or nostalgic eye, clearly holds some affection for them. Sometimes labelled as edgelands, a rather ambiguous term as to what exactly they are on the edge of – countryside, city, decency, safety? – the Glasgow edgelands of the film are undeniably beautiful in the way the director has shot them. They are filled with detail so increasingly rare in much of today’s film drama and cities generally; derelict sites where explosions of buddleia echo earlier explosions of German bombs, steel fences graffitied equally with lichen as spray-paint, and wildlife interspersed between rubbish, adapting to the human presence.

The canal in particular is a murky, dangerous realm, reminding of the 1970s Public Information Film with the “spirit of dark and lonely water”; a short educational film telling of the dangers of stagnant urban water by suggesting it to be haunted by a malevolent spirit voiced by Donald Pleasence. Not least because the canal tries to claim two lives in the film (succeeding with one), the water of Ratcatcher is certainly “dark and lonely”, almost sentient in fact. When a young girl loses her glasses in its waters, thrown there by a gang of bullies, they seem to disappear forever. The canal is rather like The Zone from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979); an edgeland with agency and esoteric powers that can deny or allows access as it pleases. Ramsay even shoots the glasses in the water rather like Tarkovsky shoots the various machinery of war now submerged and rusting under water in his film; the realm reclaiming whatever it pleases.

Ramsay was building on a number of different traditions. Landscapes such as these have come to be used in dramas dealing with working-class communities in particular, often because they are quite simply the landscapes so often readily engaged with. Seeing James run along the canal, in an attempt to escape from his demons rather than in exhilaration at being outside, it’s impossible to not draw a likeness to the opening of Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Billy Casper of Loach’s film runs through similar landscapes in Barnsley – part industrial, part rural – places that never quite decide on what to be. When Billy reads his stolen copy of The Dandy he sits in the long grass of the hill, but a hill looking out over the stark brutality of the coal mines. The same landscapes are there in Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (2013) and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), both on some level feeling like echoes of Ramsay’s film.

Equally, such landscapes have taken precedence in post-war British art, not least because the pastoral seems increasingly at odds with the landscapes that the majority of people, now living in more urban and suburban areas, experience every day. Mere years after the period of Ratcatcher’s setting, the artist Keith Arnatt embarked on his photographic series Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (1982-1984) in which he sought to evoke the same atmospheres from these landscapes through beautiful, black & white photography. In one of the photos there’s even the presence of a patch of lonely water, bordered by the same battered mesh fences and concrete posts seen in Ramsay’s film. In documenting these spaces under that title, his work was a rewriting of the flawed traditions regarding what places and landscapes really mattered. Today, visual artists such as George Shaw and Laura Oldfield Ford find equal purchase in engaging with these places, charged with personal and powerful collective memories. Seeing such work can almost be an uncanny experience, half recognised yet also not, as if we have been conditioned to always turn away.

In the end, the radical nature of Ramsay’s film comes from its engagement with place. There’s something essentially mythological in how its characters interact with the space they are surrounded by, even when they are shown as somewhere dangerous and decidedly the flipside of traditional, picturesque ideals. This mythology not least comes from a child’s perspective; discussion of these landscapes is often tempered with childhood memories, where vast realms of the imagination turned them into whole new worlds.

When James later takes the bus to the end of the line, he comes across the estate he will eventually move to, half built and empty like a ghost town. In one scene, he looks out of a gap in the wall where one day a window will reside. Outside seems like a dreamscape – a field of wheat stretching to the horizon. It’s almost a shock to watch him jump through it and into the purely rural, rather like Alice through the looking glass. Ramsay has already shown the viewer that James has no bias when it comes to places; his curiosity is endless. Only when out in the air, in derelict brownfields or in the wheat fields he almost dreams into existence, is he slowly freed of his guilt, dissipating into the soil, whether ploughed for crops or strewn with buddleia buzzing with life.