Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

In the first episode, “The Impossible Camera,” Malle and his crew watch a flock of vultures descend on the carcass of a water buffalo; Malle confesses to viewing the event as some kind of tragedy, complete with five-act structure, and the sequence is stunningly shot and cut to convey that experience; but ultimately the commentary moves us beyond the speciously persuasive visuals to a realization that this is not a tragedy, that there are no acts, that it is only a thing of a kind which occurs every day and symbolizes nothing at all. Again and again (partly because the film was not intended to be seen in one sitting or two, as I saw it) Malle remarks the Indians’ almost infinite capacity for tolerating the vagaries of their lives. Not that he views the country or its people through misty eyes—he wryly notes that “Only two percent of Indians speak English, but that two percent talk all the time,” and after savoring the chromatically saturated idyll of fishers by the sea he looks on as these same pictorially exalted folk haggle crassly with a seller’s agent scarcely more bourgeois than they.

Still, both the subject and the structure of the film as a whole tend to validate a vision of life in which time and, by implication, mortality have little meaning. In the career of a man whose films have always been haunted, explicitly or implicitly, by the spectre of self-slaughter, such an experience has both biographic and aesthetic relevance. One wonders if that serenely tolerant Murmur of the Heart could ever have been filmed by Louis Malle if he had not made, a year or two earlier, Phantom India.

RTJ

PHANTOM INDIA (L’Inde fantôme: réflexions sur un voyage)
A Film by Louis Malle. Commentary: Malle, Guy Bechtel. Cinematography: Etienne Becker. Editing: Suzanne Baron.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson