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Moderato Cantabile

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1771
  • Category: Music

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Compare Marguerite Duras’ novel Moderato Cantabile, with Peter Brook’s version of the film. Which, in your view, is more successful? Why?

Moderato Cantabile tells the story of a bored young wife of a wealthy industrial owner who depends on the only light in her life, her young son. Anne Desbarede the central protagonist rushes to the scene of a crime during one of her son’s piano lesson to find a young woman dead in a neighbouring cafe. This is where she encounters the other main protagonist Chauvin, an ex-worker at her husband’s factory who has also witnessed the murder. The troubled woman increasingly identifies herself with the murder victim and quickly becomes obsessed with Chauvin. The couple are apparently reconstructing the murder story, however really it is their own story, a story of a woman discovering herself and a man desiring to kill his lover.

I find it difficult to answer the question of whether the film or the novel was more successful because although there are differences in the film I found the mood and general atmosphere to be almost identical. For this reason I intend to argue for both sides, as I have experienced good and bad points within the two works. When we watch a movie or read a novel we have particular expectations of format. The introduction of characters, plot development and a certain outcome are the usual conventions that permit us a superior perspective on the narrative. However from my reading and viewing of Moderato Cantabile I have discovered that it goes against these formal conventions and is filled with symbols and metaphors. Studying it is difficult, as one must use intuition and go on a hunch, see through the allusion and try and understand what is being suggested and intimated to us.

In comparison to formal conventions, it makes it difficult for the reader or viewer to achieve this vantage point. Their notable absence in both of the works compels the viewer or reader to discover other ways of connecting to the stories. I believe that poetry is this new convention. Poetic qualities can be found in both works which enhances the reader or viewers experience while also reducing our conscious comprehension of the work. Through the reading of this novel, Marguerite Duras teaches us to become more subtle and skilful as readers, to gain insight it is necessary to read what is being intimated between the lines. What we are told is always implicitly implied, she rarely gives us any hard facts to go on.

Duras places emphasis on the physicality and also the musicality of her writing. A good representation of this is when we read about the child playing piano. He gives into the honey of the music and it flows from his finger tips. There is a suggestion made that it is not music when you are forced to play it, like the angry piano teacher does during the boys uncomfortable piano lessons. We experience as readers the sensuality of the music, as though the heart submerges in the liquid of the unknown and brings the musician and the listener sheer joy. It seems that the art of music will only really impact on ourselves when we truly let ourselves go. We as readers become captivated by the spontaneity and freeness of the song.

We are made aware that Anne is proud of her son for not conforming to the expectations of the middle class, the piano teacher in his case. We see him blatantly reject the rules and regulations of the education system which suppresses the flow of music, rejecting also through this, snobbery and cultural elitism. Throughout the novel he is an emblem of magic, possibility, mystery and suggestion is made that perhaps Anne missed out on the freedom to follow her instincts and desires like her child is now doing. This is perhaps why Anne is so fascinated by the murdered woman, who lived following her desires, feeling extreme emotions which Anne’s education system doesn’t allow her to feel. Anne’s natural instinct, drive and energies must all be hidden away.

She lives a life of facade and pretence. She is totally ignored by her husband who does not even receive the significance of being named in the novel. As her relationship continually grows with Chauvin we see Anne’s alcohol problem amplify, wine is drunk by the bottle, for nerves on the one hand and on the other, conforming to another habitual pattern of they’re relationship. When Anne returns late and intoxicated to a dinner party hosted at her house, her husband does not show any emotion, neither do the dinner guests present. Social etiquette is high at the party and will be upheld regardless. There is a big pretence maintained amongst the dinner party guests who must hide their shock at this deplorable behaviour.

The chaos of Anne’s drunkenness is portrayed very effectively by the novel as we see the writing beginning to become frantic. Anne’s thoughts dart to Chauvin, who is suggested to be outside the gates of her house watching, to the garden and all that it contains, and to the dinner party in a dizzy drunken spiral of feelings. We as readers are constantly drawn between the interior and exterior world. However one must also credit Brook’s film on this scenario when we hear the music playing in the background becoming quicker and more frenzied, enabling the reader to experience the heightened sense of tension in the dining room.

Duras could also be described as a dramatic writer. In the opening scene she builds up the suspense of what is about to take place. She notes the sounds from the exterior world, the waves of the sea, the shrill of the lady in the cafe and the changing of light is also recognised. We are made aware of a passing tug boat, and the red hue the sky has taken on, possibly intimating the murder that lurks around the corner. We read about how the cry frightens Anne and her son and we get a deep insight into their thoughts. Immediately Duras sets up an implicit conflict of the natural world of the body, senses and nature and the world of culture that forms part of the middle class. The film however does not relay this information as clearly to us.

The absence of colour means we are not aware of the red sky metaphor. The physicality of the fear of the characters in the room when the cry emanates is not felt in the film either. The use of poetic form in the novel heightens the reader’s sensitivity quite drastically to the delicate and difficult issues being dealt with, without forcing them upon us. When the novel becomes cinema the plot becomes more obvious, Anne and Chauvin’s affair becomes especially emphasized. Whilst reading the novel one imagines that the affair is nothing but discreet conversations in the corner of the cafe. The manner in which it is portrayed by the novel is not sexualized very much and it all seems quite harmless.

However on watching the film it is quite obvious that there is a possibility of their relationship going to the next level. The viewer sees scenes where Chauvin and Anne look deep into each other’s eyes without speaking; they sit very close together in the cafe and lean in so that their faces are only a short distance apart. Also on occasions their hands brush against each others with a suggestion of something more than friendship. The film eliminates the complexity of the novel and in a sense it is fair to say that writing can do what cinema cannot. However I found the portrayal of Anne and Chauvin’s relationship to be much more successful in depicting the desire and danger the couple were tempting.

I also feel that we get a clear imagine of how lost Anne is through the workings of the film. Brook creates repetitive patterns of sound and image that reflect the disintegration of Anne’s thoughts into a succession of these patterns interlaced with fantasies. We are presented with a series of recurring figures in both the dialogue and the scenario. Certain sounds such as the radio in the cafe and the siren indicating the end of the working day for the factory men take on a significant meaning because of their reoccurrence in the day to day pattern of Anne and Chauvin. The siren indicates time is running out for the pairs meeting.

The impact of hearing this siren in the film is greater than reading about it in the novel. We see the apprehension that passes between Anne and Chauvin when time runs out. It also indicates the passing of time, which is drifting by them just like life. In one sense, time is moving on. In another sense, there is circularity. Anne repeats her actions each day. I feel this is really well depicted by the film. The end of both the film and the novel are left open completely. We understand that Anne has gone through something of a ritualistic death and re-birth, as though she has re-discovered herself, awaking her animalistic desire and instinct.

Anne and Chauvin have mimicked the game the other coupled played and although we sense a certain menace that it could topple over into reality, we are left feeling as though Chauvin walks away from it all in the end. He realises he is in too deep and only desires to keep it at the level of fantasy. Marguerite Duras has explored this very murky part of human nature in a safe way. I feel that both the novel and film have been extremely successful in their expression of the story. The two works complement each other greatly.

As I have pointed out on a number of occasions some aspects of the novel are superior to the film and vice versa. I feel it is too difficult a choice for me personally to decide which is more successful. Both are beautifully depicted and fantastically poetic in nature. Poetry has the ability to awaken vivid emotion with its subtle and indirect approach. Both the film and the text engage the reader or viewer to maintain a high level of emotional involvement throughout the course of its reading or viewing and in my opinion both works are highly successful.

Duras, Marguerite (1958/1980). Moderato Cantabile. Paris: Les Editions De Minuit. Lecture notes taken in class.
MIT Media Laboratory, (Online), available at:
http://xenia.media.mit.edu/~bersj/Movie/DurasHMAetMC.html (Accessed on April 16th 2011)

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