It is, ostensibly, a story about a truck.
The 32-ton Saviem truck of Marguerite Duras’ 1977 experimental film Le Camion moves relentlessly forward, steered by a faceless driver, to an unstated destination: the sea, or the void, or the oft-referenced end of the world. Or perhaps all of the above, or perhaps none. The driver is a man, who picks up a hitchhiking woman. Neither are seen, or named, or meaningfully described. Explicitly, they discuss nothing of substance. Implicitly, they discuss everything, including the futility (or meaning?) of life.
The lack of details is jarring but powerful. Stripped of specifics, the man and woman become universal, and universally relatable. The truck’s journey becomes every journey, and the universal human journey through life toward death.
The story is an existential allegory. The truck relentlessly plods forward, without glamour or joy, perhaps because there are no alternatives. Just beneath the surface, however, is a deeper and more profound story about the absurd futility of our ambitions – for individuality, connection, purpose, agency. On this journey we search (too often in vain) for connection and meaning, but neither small talk nor the primal comfort of physical proximity keep existential dread at bay. We go on until the journey stops. Without predictability or sentimentality. It ends simply with silence and nothingness, a coda to a lifetime of flailing (an existential echo of Shakespeare’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”).
At least, that’s what I think the story is about.
I could be wrong.
Perhaps it’s a political parable. Or a statement about writing. Or perhaps I’m projecting my own chronic depressive realism, morose after a year of couch-based isolation. All of the above?
That’s the power and fascination of this story. It is a literary Rorschach inkblot – my interpretation says as much about me as it does the content itself.
This is the challenging but rewarding experience to expect from The Darkroom (Contra Mundum Press, April 2021). The book contains a new translation of the screenplay of Le Camion, vastly improving on the only other English-language availability of the film: the subtitles of the British release, The Lorry, where mistakes in both French translation and English grammar make the already difficult film nearly impossible to watch. The Darkroom, translated from French by Eireene Nealand and Alta Ifland, and from a publisher that specializes in difficult-to-translate works, stands out as a much-overdue improvement.
In addition to the screenplay, The Darkroom contains back matter in the form of four manifesto-like “propositions” and a previously untranslated interview between Marguerite Duras and Michelle Porte, which covers everything from Duras’ biography to her deconstruction of Marxism and her thoughts about filmmaking.
The “propositions” and the interview are worth reading, particularly because they add context and insight into some of the less conventional stylistic elements of the film. For example, scenes of the truck are interspersed with cutaways to Marguerite Duras and actor Gérard Depardieu sitting in Duras’ unglamorous living room, narrating from the script and discussing the (hypothetical) movie. This is one of many levels of “meta” in the work. They read from the script of a movie that is about two people discussing a hypothetical movie.
Depardieu begins: “It’s a film?” Duras responds: “It would have been a film.”
Much of the dialogue is stated in the conditional like this, a style given linguistic context in a prefaced quote from Maurice Grevisse: “One can consider it to be a tense (a hypothetical future). . . . Strictly speaking, the conditional expresses a potential or irreal fact whose actualization is seen as the consequence of a supposition. . . .” Stating it gives it concrete reality, even if it is an “irreal fact” – all of this four decades before “fake news” entered the lexicon. The conditional tense is not straightforward to translate, as discussed in the translator’s appendix. But with so much potentially lost in translation, so little is.
Depardieu continues: “What is the landscape like?” Duras answers: “It doesn’t matter.” And it doesn’t. It is gray and formless and undefined to the point where it is no specific landscape, and therefore every landscape. And it is a formless glimpse of a possible future – one that becomes real as we consider it. It’s one more level of abstraction: it’s not even a real landscape, but rather a landscape that might be, somewhere, sometime.
In conditional fashion, one might infer that Duras and Depardieu would stand in as the man and woman. Duras explains that “their coming together is arbitrary. . . . The only thing they have in common is the violence of their gaze. Facing this emptiness before them, the barren winter, the sea. . . . The silence at the beginning of the film would have represented the first connection between the characters. A distant, almost indifferent mechanical connection. . . .” Depardieu: “This connection will take place?” Duras: “Maybe never.” Depardieu: “What do you think?” Duras: “Never.”
The couple in the truck talk. Of many things, and of nothing. Geography, science, the origin of man, the earth’s loneliness in our barren solar system, and of course, the end of the world. He is mundane. He delivers packages, but he doesn’t know to whom, to where. He has no interest in her. He is a member of the French Communist Party, but his aspirations are material and not societal: “better lodgings . . . easier transportation . . . cheaper vacations.”
She is a seeker and a traveler. A disillusioned former Marxist (like Duras), she is now an “outcast” (“déclassé”) – a former mental patient who finds her self-centeredness and striving for individuality at the core of her problems. She has stopped many before this driver, and tells her story to each, desperate for a connection that endlessly eludes her. She descends into nihilism: “I’m not into anything. I’ve never been into anything.”
We are told their alienation is equal.
Through it all, the truck moves forward. Tirelessly. “Across many regions. The whole earth.” Devoid of destination and purpose, it is an existential metaphor for life: every moment is a choice. We choose to move forward, or choose to stop existing – like a shark that must move forward or die. She gets out, but the truck rolls on, getting closer to something/nothing/death all the time. The truck disappears from view. “We are waiting for the accident that will populate the forest. There’s the sound of a passing. We don’t know of whom, or what. . . . And then, it stops.”
It all works on multiple levels – even the title of this new volume. The Darkroom is a more compelling if less literal title than The Lorry, but it conveys the literal “dark room” from which the narrators read. And like a photography darkroom, it is a place where the blankness of undeveloped film coalesces into developed images, however vaguely developed in the mind. The phrase used in the original French text is “la chambre noire,” which historically might have been translated as “camera obscura” – a low-tech device for projecting images, reminiscent of shadows on a Platonic cave wall. Today’s high-tech translation might be a “black box.” All of these meanings apply both to the living room and to the truck’s cab. It takes time and repeated readings for these connotations to sink in, but they inevitably click on every level.
When they created Le Camion, Duras and Depardieu were simultaneously peaking in their avant-garde street cred. Depardieu was hitting his stride as indie it boy. Le Camion was one of seven films he appeared in during 1977, a decade before his English-speaking commercial efforts Cyrano De Bergerac and Green Card. Duras was already well known as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and had already produced eight other films of her own, but was hitting her creative and experimental stride.
Together the indie dream team were zigging while the American film industry was zagging. Le Camion debuted on May 25, 1977 – the same day as Star Wars. But as Duras explains in the first proposition, it was likely successful in France because it was the anti-Star Wars. It was also anti- many other high-profile Hollywood films of 1977, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Smokey and the Bandit, Saturday Night Fever, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Annie Hall (the 1977 Best Picture Oscar went to Rocky, released late in 1976). Duras didn’t write about space battles, laser swords, car chases, spy thrillers, disco dance-offs, championship boxing bouts, or now-cringey rom-coms – and she goes so far as to call popular moviegoers “cattle chewing their cud.”
Viewed through a modern lens, we might compare Le Camion to a Seinfeld episode directed by Godard, or Terrence Malick re-envisioning an existential classic like Waiting for Godot as a road trip. An exercise in minimalism, it feels timeless and universal, and as resonant today as it was over forty years ago.
To call it a “cult classic” is both an overstatement and an overly commercial statement. But with the English-language publication of The Darkroom, making it finally possible to properly appreciate the film in English, the film is perhaps a “cult classic, forty years in the making.”