MoMA’s Tribute to Bulle Ogier

Bulle Ogier in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1969)

The Museum of Modern Art’s tribute to Bulle Ogier is “about as high-quality as actor retros get,” tweets filmmaker Dan Sallitt (The Unspeakable Act, Fourteen). Opening Wednesday and running through May, the series of more than thirty features and short films directed by such key figures of European cinema as Jacques Rivette, Marguerite Duras, and Luis Buñuel spotlights a performer MoMA calls “that most malleable and elusive of creatures—cerebral or sensuous as the role demands.”

Ogier’s roots are in the theater, and more specifically, in her work with the troupe that formed around Marc-Gilbert Guillaumin, better known as Marc’O. A former teenage fighter for the Resistance, Marc’O was a friend of André Breton’s and an editor of two Lettrist journals who, in 1954, made a surrealist experimental film, Closed Vision, which was backed by Jean Cocteau and premiered in Cannes. In the early 1960s, he began writing and directing plays with an emphasis on the actor as cocreator. “Imagine a Lettrist-Situationist answer to New York’s Living Theater,” suggests MoMA.

In her early twenties, Ogier had already borne a daughter, Pascale, and married and divorced the father, musician Gilles Nicolas. Marc’O invited her to take his classes, and by 1963, she was performing in his plays. MoMA is showing documentary footage of one of these productions, Les bargasses (1965), featuring Ogier and Pierre Clémenti. The troupe scored a hit with the rock musical Les idoles, which ran for a few years before Marc’O, assisted by André Téchiné, directed an adaptation that was edited by Jean Eustache and released in 1968.

“Several cineastes would come and watch us,” Ogier recalled when Christopher Small spoke with her for Film Comment in 2015. One of those cineastes was Rivette, who “built the cast for L’amour fou [1969] out of the players in the group,” said Ogier. “It certainly was not the same work, except that at that point we knew each other so well that there was no time wasted, no intimidation. That’s why there’s such freedom to be seen in L’amour fou.

A married couple, actress Claire (Ogier) and theater director Sébastien-Pyrrhus (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), are preparing to stage Racine’s Andromaque, and right at the outset, Claire leaves the production and begins concocting paranoid scenarios. A television documentary crew shoots the rehearsals in 16 mm, while the storm brewing in Claire and Sébastien-Pyrrhus’s apartment is shot in 35 mm.

“The dialogue between theater and life, fact and fiction, husband and wife is grueling and frequently despairing, yet its telling is dexterous and mysterious, a cast and crew working together in liberated, expansive play,” wrote Daniel Kasman in a dispatch to the Notebook from Cannes, where the new restoration of L’amour fou premiered last year. “In many ways,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader in 1994, “this is Ogier’s richest, finest performance, and Kalfon keeps pace with her every step of the way. This film captures the dreams and desperation of the ’60s like few others, and you emerge from it changed; it’s a life experience as much as a film experience.”

For some, the four-hour-plus running time may be challenge. But then there’s Out 1 (1971). “Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly thirteen hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation,” wrote Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for the A.V. Club when Out 1 was revived in 2015. MoMA will screen it in two parts over two days, Saturday and Sunday, May 11 and 12.

Featuring Ogier, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Michael Lonsdale, Bernadette Lafont, Juliet Berto, and in a key cameo, Eric Rohmer, all of them semi-spontaneously creating their characters in collaboration with Rivette and cowriter and codirector Suzanne Schiffman, Out 1 “can only be explained with Venn diagrams and flowcharts, involving two scam artists, two experimental theater troupes, two ancient Greek plays, a boutique shop, a secret society modeled on Honoré De Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, and cryptic messages decoded through Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark,’” wrote Vishnevetsky. Out 1 is “the most thoroughly and authentically paranoid movie ever made, its overtones of conspiracy and cryptic meaning so pronounced that they extend the borders of fiction out into the real world; a viewer may exit the theater, but they don’t really exit Out 1 for a solid week after.”

The series features four more collaborations between Ogier and Rivette, including Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), cowritten with costars Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, and Marie-France Pisier. “Drawing inspiration from cartoons, Hollywood musicals, and the vaudeville shenanigans of early screen comedy in the vein of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Jacques Rivette’s fifth feature film, a masterpiece of modern cinema, wields laughter—women’s laughter—like a weapon for shattering conventions,” wrote Beatrice Loayza in 2021.

Duelle (1976) pits Ogier’s sun goddess against Berto’s moon goddess in a struggle for “control over an enchanted diamond that will permit its owner to hold sway on Earth indefinitely,” as Budd Wilkins explains at Slant. “Rivette counter-intuitively couches this florid fairy-tale material in a hard-bitten film-noir framework, going so far as to toss in explicit visual references to The Lady from Shanghai and The Big Sleep.

Ogier told Christopher Small that her role in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979) as a terrorist released from prison might spark an idea for the beginning of a film. “Jacques was seduced by that idea,” she said. In Le pont du Nord (1981), she plays Marie, a freshly sprung bank robber in Paris who meets and teams up with a young woman from the country, Baptiste, played by her daughter, Pascale.

Marie and Baptiste “spend four days wandering the city, using a map enabling them to engage in a mysterious form of real-world Snakes and Ladders,” wrote J. Hoberman in the New York Times in 2015. “While the waiflike Marie has a series of enigmatic encounters with a sinister former lover (Pierre Clémenti), the would-be samurai Baptiste sees portents everywhere, notably stone lions and posters for the Kurosawa movie Kagemusha.

Three years later, Pascale Ogier died of heart failure one day short of her twenty-sixth birthday. Her mother’s pace slowed, but only briefly, and in 1989, she made one last film with Rivette, playing a demanding acting teacher in The Gang of Four. For Rivette enthusiast Rosenbaum, this is “one of his most accessible movies” and “can be an excellent introduction to his work as a whole; but it’s less impressive if you already know that work.”

The notes for MoMA’s tribute, Locarno’s in 2015, and the Cinémathèque française’s 2012 Ogier retrospective all cite Marguerite Duras’s comment on her friend and collaborator: “Bulle is not the nouvelle vague; Bulle is absolute vagueness.” MoMA will screen three of the films they made together, Entire Days Among Trees (1977), Le navire Night (1979), and Agatha and the Limitless Readings (1981). There are also three films here from Ogier’s husband, Barbet Schroder: The Valley (1972), Maîtresse (1976)—Ogier is “spot-on as the leather-clad, whip-wielding mistress of what seems to be the most amply equipped pain parlor in Paris,” noted Elliott Stein in 2004—and Tricheurs (1984), a gambler’s tale shot by Robby Müller.

Other highlights of the program include two films Ogier made with Manoel de Oliveira, My Case (1986) and Belle toujours (2006); Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)—Adrian Martin notes that in her 2019 memoir J’ai oublié, Ogier “recalls the joy of this shoot on which ‘we never stopped laughing’”—and Werner Schroeter’s Deux (2002), starring Ogier as the mother of twins, both played by Isabelle Huppert.

The pivotal year in Ogier’s career was 1971, which saw not only the release of Out 1 and Rosenbaum’s favorite Belgian film, André Delvaux’s Appointment in Bray, but also Alain Tanner’s The Salamander, a box-office hit that brought Ogier her first wave of international recognition. “Bulle Ogier, the lovely and irrepressibly common heroine of La salamandre, is conceived along the lines of Skolimowski’s Jane Asher in Deep End and Rohmer’s Haydee in La collectionneuse—a young woman who stubbornly resists the efforts of men to classify her, or squeeze her into the ready-made molds of their fantasies,” wrote Molly Haskell in the Village Voice. Tanner allows his film “to be invaded by her presence, which is its own sensual secret, palpable and finally unanalyzable.” 

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