Using Riffaterre to rehabilitate 'The Lover'

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In this article I shall use Michael Riffaterre's theory of intertextuality to re-examine the film The Lover. The film has been widely seen as a seriously inadequate adaptation of Marguerite Duras's novel L'amant. I shall show, however, how certain Riffaterrian "ungrammaticalities" in the film, inconsistencies and unusual elements, can be understood as approximating the subtle complexity of the novel. Riffaterre's theory thus provides a new and interesting way of analyzing film adaptations. In the discussion of film adaptation the concept of "intertextuality" has served the useful purpose of transcending the moralistic statements often associated with "fidelity," although the latter notion remains important. Stam proposes the concept of "intertextual dialogism," whereby a film is conceived as a turn in an ongoing dialogical process such that it bears the traces of multiple intertexts (64). Film adaptation can be conceived as the reproduction and transformation of intertexts through various processes such as selection, amplification, popularization, and reculturalization. These processes are conditioned by the material and financial contingencies specific to cinema, and by ambient target culture discourses and ideology reflected in studio style, ideological fashion, political constraints, auteur's predilections, economic advantage, and evolving technology (Stam 68-69). As compared with Stam's notion of dialogism that conceptualizes a simultaneity or forward movement of evolving texts, Riffaterre proposes a backward-looking search for intertexts for the purposes of elucidation. Riffaterre is well known for his detailed and perspicacious readings of poetry, and for a theoretical framework explaining his practice of reading that seems to have been elaborated independently from work by other theorists. For Riffaterre there are two stages of reading: the heuristic/referential stage producing meaning and the retroactive/hermeneutic stage producing significance. The text is first read in a linear fashion in which the referential or mimetic dominates. If there are aspects that do not fit a mimetic reading, a second reading is made to gain an understanding of non-referential aspects such as tropes, ambiguities, contradictions, and sound patterns that create meaning. The second semiotic reading elucidates what Riffaterre terms "ungrammaticalities," anything unusual (formal or semantic) or which does not fit mimesis, in particular ambiguities, contradictions, and indeterminacies. Ungrammaticalities are understood through reference to other texts, termed intertexts, which may be conventional forms and styles, cliches and formulae, fragments of texts or entire texts. For Riffaterre every ungrammaticality is a sign of grammaticality elsewhere: "the poetic sign has two faces: textually ungrammatical, intertextually grammatical; displaced and distorted in the mimesis system, but in the semiotic grid appropriate and rightly placed" (Semiotics 164). For Riffaterre an intertext may be aleatory (the reader may or may not enrich his or her understanding by bringing intertextual knowledge to the reading) or determinate (there is an intertext that is signaled by ungrammaticality, and which is necessary for comprehension of the text). In the latter case the reader may not be knowledgeable of a specific intertext, but an intertext will be presupposed because of the deictic intertextual trace of ungrammaticality. There may be more than one pertinent intertext: overdetermination provides multiple motivations for words used. In connection with intertextuality, Riffaterre also takes up the Peircean notion of "interpretant" as a mediating sign that explains the relationship between two signs such as the text and the intertext. An example of an interpretant is the phoenix, the symbol of eternity (and thus potentially of prostitution) that evokes also flame and flight. This interpretant links Mallarme's text "Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire" 'Charles Baudelaire's Tomb' to Baudelaire's "Crepuscule du soir" 'Evening Twilight' in the following passages: Il allume hagard un immortel pubis Dont le vol selon le reverbere decouche 'Gas lights up wildly an immortal pubes whose flight sweeps away from home following the street lamp' (Mallarme) and A travers les lueurs que tourmentent le vent la Prostitution s'allume dans les rues 'Through the lights which the wind torments, Prostitution is lit up in the streets' (Baudelaire) (Riffaterre, "La trace").
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-60
Number of pages9
JournalLiterature-Film Quarterly
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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