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The Truck (1976). Starring Marguerite Duras and Gerard Depardieu. Directed by Marguerite Duras. Running time: 80 minutes.

Marguerite Duras' The Truck (Le Camion) was, rather prankishly, reviewed by Pauline Kael the same week she reviewed Star Wars. Guess which movie she preferred. Kael generally sided with unpretentious American entertainment over arty French films putting on airs, but not this time. She made a case for Duras' stubborn anti-movie being more nourishing, and even more of a movie, than George Lucas' "box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes." Duras gives us a box of Cracker Jacks which is all Cracker Jacks. You provide the prize.

Duras had envisioned a film about an older woman hitching a ride with a younger trucker and having a mostly one-sided conversation about politics and philosophy. The revolution, this woman would insist (in Duras' voice), was dead. There is nothing but the void; "the world has gone to rack and ruin." The woman's daughter has recently had a baby, and she wants to go to her. The trucker listens but says very little. She is old, so he's not all that interested in her to begin with.

Duras couldn't get an actress to commit to the role, so she decided to play it herself, opposite Gerard Depardieu as the trucker. The two performers, though, never set foot inside the truck. Duras and Depardieu -- the cerebral old lady and the virile, physical young man -- sit at a table and read from Duras' script. Duras describes the film in the conditional tense: "It would have been a film." Every so often, we escape from the table-read and see the truck driving along a highway in the blue of night, or see the landscape passing by (Bruno Nuytten was the cinematographer), while Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" plays, seemingly oblivious to yet parallel to the imagery. As Kael pointed out, our visual interest is piqued -- even if nothing really goes on in these exterior shots -- and we're lulled into feeling that we're watching "a real movie," and then, without warning, we're put right back into that dim room with Duras and Depardieu, and they continue reading from the script.

Assuming you don't lose your patience with this sort of meta-goof, The Truck sustains its arrogant tone masterfully. It becomes, on some heady level, a comedy unlike any other; we don't laugh at Duras, but we laugh at the game she's playing. And there she is, up on the screen, delivering her pensees in her slow, imperious deadpan. Lots of filmmakers have dabbled in confrontational work; few have the guts to put themselves front and center in it. (Duras and Tom Green: together at last.) I can see why John Waters loves the film -- he gets the essential punk-rock middle-finger aspect of it. Yet Duras' experiment goes deeper than that. She uses the medium to condemn our very expectations of the medium, yet she still tells a story, she gives us an up-and-coming box-office star (Depardieu was getting hot at the time, having worked for Barbet Schroeder, Bertrand Blier, and Bernardo Bertolucci), and she shows us the truck. What more do we need? Eventually, if our patience holds out, we climb into the film and finish it with Duras, imagining our own mind-movie from the table-read.

Without the exteriors of the truck, this would be a filmed play. With them, it becomes cinema, banal but beautiful in its rhythms. I don't know that anyone else could have pulled it off; there's wit in this achievement, but Duras is also deadly serious and sincere about it. There's wistfulness in the repeated conditional tense but also playfulness. The Truck may be the ultimate doodling French art film, but it can't help but satisfy on an unconscious level. Duras didn't hate the audience; she disregarded it. At the same time, she knows we're there and if we don't sit and listen to her, that's very much our problem, yet she also knows the movie isn't complete without us. The story she tells, she says, is "about everything," and so it is; with two locations and a cast of two, it can afford to be an epic of the mind, brooding over the many ways in which humans act against their own self-interest.

The Truck risks being a folly about folly, but Duras' control is absolute. Everything is in its place; nothing is discordant or extraneous (the 80-minute running time helps). It needs to be seen at least once by any adventurous film lover, and perhaps revisited; it's a haunting little piece, unfolding as it does largely in the mind's eye. That it's not available on home video in America in any format is frustrating, though Duras might have appreciated that. Not only do you have to work while you watch the film -- you have to work to get to see it in the first place.



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