Michael Lonsdale tells Marguerite Duras

Michael Lonsdale is sitting in a corner of a Parisian cafe. In a few hours, he must play the role of Turgenev, but for the moment he evokes the one for whom he has played so much: Marguerite Duras. In the hubbub of the establishment, her soft, slow, low voice is barely distinct and yet very audible. She was his great friend.

How did you know Marguerite Duras?

In 1968: the Barraults were driven out of the Odéon and took refuge in a small theater, Impasse Récamier. They were going up The English Lover, and it is Claude Régy who proposed my name. I remember that Marguerite was present at the rehearsals. She was constantly changing the text. A piece was always for her “a work in progress”. A few days before the performance, I asked him to stop: I no longer knew which version was the right one to play.

Were you familiar with his work at the time?

I had seen Hiroshima my love which I had found with incredible artistic nerve. And I read his novels, Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia, Whole Days in the Trees, etc. His work interested me for its novelty.

What woman was she?

I had childish relationships with her. We had a lot of common tastes. For example, a passion for the film The Night of the Hunter, or the novels of Virginia Woolf. It seems to me that we laughed a lot together. Everything could be light with her. She had unearthed somehow an anthology of letters that people sent to Social Security and that she had read to me. On one of them, a woman wrote: “My husband is dead, but since then I have not been able to get him out of the cash register.” When she spoke politics, on the other hand, she was difficult to live with. She always wanted to be right. I remember one evening at her house in Neauphle. After an endless political discussion, she had gone upstairs to bed. We saw her come down a few minutes later and relaunch the conversation: “I forgot to tell you …” She could also talk for hours about feminism with Delphine Seyrig. Once she was talking about a book of poetry that she had liked very much, she blurted out: “Too bad it’s written by a man.” I did not comment.

What is your best memory with her?

I played The English Lover for thirty-five years. And then Destroy, she said, in 1969, when Marguerite was making her film debut. I also have fond memories of filming India Song (1975). She had little experience. She started by filming the ball scene. We started playing and the sound engineer put on the music. Then he stopped everything: “Either you are talking or there is music.” Duras thought for a moment and decided: “You will not speak.” And we shot in voiceover. I have always liked her tone, her style, a wonderful freedom. She spoke of passion in love in the most intense way possible.

His avant-garde genre didn’t bother you?

On the contrary. I refused several times to enter the Comédie-Française. Shining in a big classic role doesn’t interest me. What I like is creating. That’s why I was happy to play Beckett, Ionesco, Duras. It was the happiness of my life.

How did she fit into the literature of her time?

I don’t think she liked her contemporaries very much. I heard her say: “There are only two writers in France: Simenon and me.” One day, we opposed because she was denigrating Chekhov. This author speaks like no one about the evil of love between beings. She knew very well that he surpassed her. Over the years, she began to have a strong opinion on everything. I remember that she had interviewed a prison director whom she had violently attacked, implicating her, with brutality. She mixed her work and reality. She became interested in the Villemin affair because of The English Lover (taken from a similar news item, Editor’s note). She went to see the drama house, met the examining magistrate. But she refused to see the mother, on whom she nevertheless passed judgment in a famous text. She preferred to dream her characters.

Isn’t there a Marguerite Duras from before L’Amant and one after?

We formed a very happy little band with Marguerite, until the day when Yann (Yann Andrea, his last companion, Editor’s note) arrived. He saved her, but he also cut her off from her friends. She had become difficult. The day she received the Goncourt Prize, we went to celebrate at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, at the Barraults. She settled accounts with everyone. She attacked a present criticism by throwing at it: “You murdered me.” She had a bad experience with the success of L’Amant – not her best book, because she writes “I”. She also wrote L’Amant de la Chine du Nord to rectify the situation after the film adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud, which she did not like.

Were you talking about God with her?

No never. She said, “God, I don’t believe it, but I talk about it all the time.” I know she read the Bible. In his work, I like to find many characters, as in Beckett, the poor, the unhappy, who are signs of the presence of God.