Putting ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ Onstage

PARIS — When the film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was released 60 years ago, the French author Marguerite Duras was still relatively unknown. Directed by Alain Resnais, the meditation on love, war and destruction earned Duras an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. She became one of France’s most original 20th-century writers, and the spare intensity of her prose continues to be imitated.

While “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was never intended for the stage, it is one of two Duras adaptations currently playing in Paris. The other, “L’Homme Assis dans le Couloir” (“The Man Sitting in the Corridor”), was first written as a short story around the same time as “Hiroshima,” although Duras extensively reworked it for publication in 1980. Both works center on morally ambiguous characters, as often with Duras.

The directors Gabriel Garran and Bertrand Marcos have refashioned “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “L’Homme Assis dans le Couloir” as one-woman shows. Still, watching Fanny Ardant and Marie-Cécile Gueguen, it is hard to believe their roles originated with the same author. While Ms. Gueguen is sultry in Mr. Garran’s take on “L’Homme Assis,” Ms. Ardant captivates with understated sensuality in “Hiroshima.”

On paper, the two works share a darkly erotic charge. “You kill me. You do me good,” the unnamed heroine, an actress, repeats like a mantra in “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” She has a short-lived affair with a Japanese man while on set in Hiroshima; their conversations over 36 hours form the bulk of the film and the stage adaptation. “L’Homme Assis,” meanwhile, explores a violent, fetishistic sexual encounter, and has been regarded by many as pornographic.

Read today, it is first and foremost a stylish, provocative literary piece. Duras manages to be explicit without being crude: The man’s genitals, for instance, are only ever alluded to (though in French they are given female pronouns, a droll touch). The atmosphere is thick with existential tension. The violence is disturbing, yet explicitly consensual. In the end, we’re left to wonder if the woman is dead.

Mr. Garran’s production, presented at Les Déchargeurs, doesn’t do much to convey the text’s subtleties, unfortunately. In the 1980 version, Duras introduces an unnamed narrator who watches the action and makes it seem more like the depiction of a voyeuristic fantasy than reality. Mr. Garran’s version starts with the sound of a typewriter and shows Ms. Gueguen writing at several points, but mostly it asks her simply to embody the central female character.

Both Mr. Garran and Ms. Gueguen overdo the character’s sensuality in a way that makes the text look like soft porn designed for the male gaze. Ms. Gueguen unbuttons her dress, caresses her breasts, spreads her legs with her back to the audience and points a mirror at her crotch. One interlude involves red lighting and nightclub music; when her character is being hit in the face, Ms. Gueguen writhes prettily.

It’s a far cry from “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” arrestingly presented by Bertrand Marcos and Ms. Ardant at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens. Mr. Marcos’s directorial debut came with a 2013 production of Eduardo Pavlovsky’s “The Death of Marguerite Duras,” so he is no stranger to the writer. His adaptation of her screenplay is effective, and wisely shortens the descriptions of Hiroshima, which were accompanied in the film by images of the city after the nuclear catastrophe.

Ms. Ardant is alone onstage, in a black dress, with a single chair. The 70-year-old actress, best known internationally for her work with François Truffaut and English-speaking films including Franco Zeffirelli’s “Callas Forever,” is the object of special affection in France. Her voice — deep, velvety, slightly raspy — is instantly recognizable, and she brings a welcome level of sophistication to Duras’s allusive style, which she has tackled in multiple stage productions over the years.

There is a bleak, dangerous subtext to even the most erotic moments in “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” (The academic Leslie Hill once published a book about Duras under the title “Apocalyptic Desires.”) Its female central character reminisces about a defining episode in her life: a forbidden relationship with a German man in Nazi-occupied France. In the film, Emmanuelle Riva has her head forcefully shaved as punishment after the Liberation.

Ms. Ardant undergoes no such ordeal, but she captures the text’s blend of pain and pleasure with beautiful economy. The Japanese man is heard only in voice-over in Mr. Marcos’s production, and is played by Gérard Depardieu, who worked on several films with Duras and became a friend. Her style is alive in “Hiroshima Mon Amour”: Ms. Ardant’s performance alone would make for a definitive audiobook, if anyone was inclined to record it.

Duras’s “refusal to moralize sexuality,” as Mr. Hill put it, means her work often resists black-and-white feminist interpretations, but she was a fierce advocate of women’s rights. In 1971, she was one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343,” a letter published in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur calling for the legalization of abortion in France. Alongside Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve, in order to bring about change Duras admitted publicly to having illegally had an abortion.

The letter and the struggle for abortion rights in France are at the heart of a new play, “Hors la Loi” (“Outlaw”), written and directed by Pauline Bureau for the Comédie-Française. Staged at the troupe’s second venue, the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, it manages to be true to history and affecting without seeming purely didactic.

The production focuses on the story of Marie-Claire Chevalier, a teenage girl who had an illegal abortion after being raped, and was denounced to the police by her aggressor. The ensuing trial, in 1971 in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris, became a famous test case for abortion rights advocates.

Those court proceedings are recreated in “Hors la Loi,” but Ms. Bureau also interviewed Ms. Chevalier and zooms in on her personal story, from her working-class childhood to the aftermath of the trial. Claire de La Rüe du Can plays the 16-year-old Marie-Claire, who is barely able to speak when questioned, with a beautiful sense of repressed pain.

The play’s human impact hinges on another performance: that of Martine Chevallier, who plays Marie-Claire at the age of 60. She appears throughout “Hors la Loi” to contextualize the story, and has the last word in a heart-rending monologue. Ms. Chevalier was acquitted while her mother got a suspended sentence, yet the older actress explains that after the news cycle moved on, she was shunned, forced to drop out of school, and carried the trauma of the trial for decades. That’s the cost of a story that became history — one that needs to be told.

Hiroshima Mon Amour. Directed by Bertrand Marcos. Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, through July 7.
L’Homme Assis dans le Couloir. Directed by Gabriel Garran. Les Déchargeurs, through July 6.
Hors la Loi. Directed by Pauline Bureau. Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier/Comédie-Française, through July 7.

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