New Wave Muses Behind the Camera

Anna Karina directing Vivre ensemble (1973)

Back in April, we previewed Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives of 1970s and 1980s France, an exhibition still on view at the Kunsthalle Wien through September 7. Playing an unnamed woman essentially stalked by one man and held in check by another in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Seyrig “emerges as an object of extraordinary fascination,” as Beatrice Loayza wrote here a couple of weeks ago. In the years that followed, directors such as François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Joseph Losey, and William Klein allowed her characters more agency, but Seyrig remained “a projection of other people’s desires.”

The collaboration with Chantal Akerman that began in 1975 with Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles “changed everything,” writes Loayza. So, too, did Seyrig’s partnership with documentarian Carole Roussopoulos and translator Ioana Wieder. It was also in 1975 that the three women founded the film and video collective Les insoumuses, which can be roughly translated as “the defiant muses.” One of the films they produced—directed by Seyrig—gives the month-long series presented by the Austin Film Society starting Thursday its title: Be Pretty and Shut Up: New Wave Muses Behind the Camera.

The selection of four films directed by women first introduced to moviegoers as the on-screen muses of male French New Wave filmmakers begins with Anna Karina’s directorial debut, Vivre ensemble (Living Together, 1973). Remembering Karina in the Paris Review a few months after she died in December 2019, Madison Mainwaring began by writing about her creative and romantic partnership with Jean-Luc Godard, who had a penchant for killing off her characters at the end of the films they made together. “Was there anything about her that was not his?” asked Mainwaring. “Godard didn’t think so.”

Mainwaring sees Vivre ensemble as a “pointed response” to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962), in which Karina’s Nana, a failed actress who has left her husband and baby boy, resorts to sex work to make ends meet. In the final scene, she’s shot dead. In Vivre ensemble, Karina’s Julie, another failed actress, ends up striding “alone and very much alive through the streets of Paris to her infant son at home,” writes Mainwaring. “If there was a message in her film’s narrative, Karina also seemed to launch a manifesto in the politics of its style. In My Life to Live, Godard interspersed the opening credits with obsessive close-ups of Karina’s face. She applies the same tactic at the beginning of Living Together, but reverses the usual gendered power dynamics of the image. Rather than using the camera like a voyeur—the man looking, the woman looked at—the credit sequence moves from the male lead to Karina and back again, as if recording the mutual exchange of their look.”

Godard directed Juliet Berto in a handful of features in the late 1960s, but she is now likely better known for her work with Jacques Rivette on Out 1 (1971), Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), and Duelle (1976). Working with her partner, Jean-Henri Roger, Berto made her directorial debut with Neige (1981), an immersive plunge into the Montmartre underworld. “Indebted to the boilerplate romans de gare that are ubiquitous in France, Neige commingles danger with low-rent spectacle, never pretending to damp down the carnival atmosphere of the drag where the vast majority of the action unfolds,” wrote Steve Macfarlane in Cinema Scope last year. “It’s tempting to posit Neige as a hidden bridge between the Nouvelle Vague and the subsequent generation’s cinéma du look: drunken street poetry shot through pop realism.”

In the third week of the series, the AFS will present a rare 35 mm print of Lumière (1976), the first of three films directed by Jeanne Moreau. She stars as a celebrated actress in mid-career who invites three friends—two younger and lesser-known actresses played by Francine Racette and Caroline Cartier and a lifelong friend and wealthy Italian actress (Lucia Bosè)—to lounge together and look back to a life-changing series of events that unfolded in Paris the year before.

“A mark of originality—and of modernity—in cinema is a director’s approach to performance,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in 2017, “and from the start, Moreau, as a director and a screenwriter, reveals a distinctive way with her own performance as well as the others onscreen. Surprisingly, refreshingly, and revealingly, for a movie made by an actor in which that actor stars, it’s no bravura showcase, no feast of technique or display of virtuosity; it’s a calm, lyrical melodrama with an air of lightness and grace, a survivor’s story.”

In Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1976), Delphine Seyrig talks with twenty-four French and American actresses—including Juliet Berto, Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Maria Schneider, and Anne Wiazemsky—about working in an industry in which nearly every creative decision is made by a man. When the Berlinale Forum screened the film in 2019, programmer Marie Kloos noted that the interviews are “a shockingly unsurprising record of the era, creating a sobering assessment of working in an industry busy maintaining the machinery of male fantasies. Seyrig asks: ‘If you’d been a man, would you still have chosen to become an actor?’ or ‘Have you ever acted in a scene with another woman and if so, was her role that of a competitor or a confidante?’—thus initiating a process of reflection. What’s astonishing is not the answers—a similar lack of nuanced roles and appropriate representation is still very much apparent today—but rather the fact that here, for once, someone was asking the right questions.”

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