To the dismay of every male I’ve discussed it with, I have problems with Jeanne Balibar. I think part of it is I don’t care for actresses with high-pitched or nasally voices (this is also why I don’t like Jean Arthur, another point of contention). On top of that, I thought of her as always playing characters who indulge in this kind of smug impetuousness and think that men really go for it, and then men do go for it and it makes me crazy.
But two things lately tempered my aversion to her–Panique au village and Ne change rien. Obviously her voice is very well-suited for the hyper-exclamatory style of Panique–when I first heard she was involved, I thought, “Oh right, of course.” But her character, Madame Longrée, serves as a regal counterpoint to all the craziness and her voicing is very fluid and charming.
And I think it’s near impossible to see Pedro Costa’s film and not fall for her. She offers herself up completely and Costa captures it all quite lovingly. She was there for the Q&A after the NYFF screening that I saw and she seemed very gracious and warm. So after all my emphatic dismissals I felt I judged in haste and wanted to revisit my first impressions. I realized they were based just on Late August, Early September and My Sex Life, which I saw very close together.
I watched Clean on Friday night for the first time. I think she’s quite good in her small part, but Laetitia Spigarelli and Béatrice Dalle dominated all my extra-Maggie attention. I didn’t care for the film much but I deeply adore Assayas, so right after I was in the mood to rewatch Late August, Early September. Beyond confusing Jeanne’s two roles, I couldn’t remember definitively which things were in it and which were in My Sex Life and I wanted to rectify that. Also I saw it before seeing any of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, before she took on this mythic quality of living the female cinephilic dream, and I wanted to watch her performance again.
I really love Late August, Early September, much more fully now than the first time I saw it. With regard to Jeanne, I have an unfortunate tendency to prejudge characters when I don’t like the actress, or prefer another actress in the film; here it was Virginie Ledoyen. Since Mathieu Amalric goes back and forth between the two, the first time I watched the film my mind put them in competition and I sided with Virginie. And so Amalric’s relationship with Balibar became devalued in my mind; I saw her as scheming and manipulative. But I felt none of that this time. All of the relationships in this film are portrayed so tenderly, with such a real feeling of history.
Another thing I didn’t care for before is the way she can twist her lines around with this kind of juvenile cuteness, in a sort of truncated rhythm, twisting her face for emphasis. I still think it can be very off-putting but it didn’t bother me as much. And actually, I found the part where she keeps changing her coffee order in the café with Arsinée Khanjian especially endearing.
Not as easy to reconcile with her performance in My Sex Life, which I watched the following night. I forgot about the scenes where she puts those stick things in her hair, and when she visits Amalric in class, and when she smashes his keyboard. She’s always sticking out her lips and raising her eyebrows and taunting him, going on and on about how terrible she is. I found nothing sympathetic in her, which is why I thought she was a bad actress before. I also remember her being the main sore note in the film, the thing that kept me from fully embracing it, but now I have trouble connecting to the whole thing.
I always have a problem of connection with Desplechin, though. I think we are just not on the same wavelength. He puts in these things that just don’t work at all for me, like the dead first husband in Kings and Queen (my favorite film of his) and the boy who sees wolves in A Christmas Tale. And to me his characters often feel too contrived. Also, he loves bad rap, which annoys me because his French contemporaries can make such devastatingly perfect music choices. My Sex Life all feels very crafted and dramatized, especially juxtaposed to the Assayas. Everyone is always analyzing each other in this way that feels very fake. That scene of Emmanuelle Devos in the shower though is still a knock-out. I love all the scenes of her in her little dorm room (washing her little café au lait bowl!) and at translator school. I could watch a whole movie of that. But she’s a goddess.
At any rate, I now associate Jeanne Balibar’s unpleasantness in My Sex Life a little more with Desplechin than with her as an actress, though I still think she can have annoying tendencies. I’m eager to see how she is with other directors; I still haven’t seen Ne touchez pas la hache, Va savoir, Mange ta soupe… Lots still to delve into, as always.