Surveying the life and career of Delphine Seyrig for the New York Times in 2002, Amy Taubin naturally began with the French actress and director’s international breakthrough. In Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), “Seyrig’s combination of intelligence and sensuality—her ability to suggest a complicated subjectivity while fulfilling her role as the movie’s elusive object of desire—made her a thinking person's femme fatale.”
Over the following three decades before ovarian cancer took her in 1990—she was only fifty-eight—Seyrig appeared in films directed by François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Joseph Losey, Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, and of course, Chantal Akerman, whose Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is a film that, as Taubin observed, “combines the rhythms of an ethnographic study with the structure of a classical tragedy.”
Many of these films are featured in our Criterion Channel program dedicated to Seyrig, along with one she directed. In Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1976), Seyrig asks two dozen French and American actresses—including Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Juliet Berto, Ellen Burstyn, Maria Schneider, Louise Fletcher, Barbara Steele, and Anne Wiazemsky—about working in an industry in which nearly every creative decision is made by a man.
The interviewees’ “most damning indictment of the male-dominated world of movies is simply that it doesn’t reflect their experiences, their personal, off-camera realities,” wrote Richard Brody in the New Yorker last year. “It would take a cinema made by women—including in the production crew, as several participants mention—to bring about changes in the work experience of actresses and in the movies in which they appear.”
By 1976, Seyrig was already working toward bringing about such a cinema. A few years before, she attended a video editing workshop conducted by Carole Roussopoulos, a Swiss documentarian who was probably the first woman in France to buy a relatively light-weight Sony Portapak camera and recorder. For Roussopoulos, video was “a new medium, which hadn’t been colonized by men and their power.”
Seyrig and Roussopoulos hit it off, and in 1975, they teamed up with translator Ioana Wieder to found a collective, Les Insoumuses. The name is a play on the French words for “insubordinate” and “muses,” and as Esmé Hogeveen wrote in her review of Callisto McNulty’s 2019 documentary Delphine and Carole for the Brooklyn Rail, Les Insoumuses “aptly describes the witty spirit behind the group’s endeavors, which often involved using humor and frank interviews to expose the conditions of women’s labor in media and beyond.”
In The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak Out (1975), Roussopoulos interviews sex workers demonstrating for better conditions and taking refuge in a church out of fear that going public with their demands would lead to their arrests. The protestors are initially reluctant to speak on camera, but once they do, they draw throngs of passersby eager to hear them out. Maso and Miso Go Boating (1976) hijacks a French talk show featuring Françoise Giroud, the Secretary of State assigned to address “the woman’s condition.” As Giroud plays along while the other guests—all men—crack sexist jokes, Seyrig and Co. interrupt with overdubs, songs, and wisecracks of their own.
The exhibition Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives of 1970s and 1980s France, opening today at the Kunsthalle Wien, explores the lasting impact of their work. “As opposed to a legacy centered on a theoretical body of work involving the fields of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and writing (the ‘écriture féminine’),” note curators Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi, “the exhibition focuses on an alternative history in which media practices, activism, and visual culture take the leading role.” The Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center, founded in Paris by Seyrig, Roussopoulos, and Wieder in 1982, remains a vital feminist institution.
As Rachel Pronger points out in the Notebook, in the 1970s and ’80s, “a wave of female-led collectives was emerging simultaneously around the world. From Paris to Mexico City, New York to London, Bogota to Bangalore, groups of women began to work together to harness film as a consciousness-raising tool.” Besides an equal footing in the industry, women aimed to reclaim their own image. “I found it fantastic that I, an actress, had suddenly become a director,” said Seyrig in 1983. “It was a revelation, an enormous pleasure, an incomparable revenge for being summoned at six in the morning to have my hair done, get made up, and start filming.”
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