Posts Tagged ‘acting’

Words and Movement from January Jones

May 15, 2011

I caught Unknown at the dollar theater recently and it got me thinking about January Jones’s strange performance style, as it’s very similar there to her Betty on Mad Men. She has a weird cadence that is nearly the makings of flat, terrible acting but isn’t—and that’s one reason why I find her so interesting. She brings you out of her fictional circumstances a little bit and makes you think about the way in which she’s saying things. Normally I hate this in actors but with her the distraction actually adds a level of enjoyment in thinking about how she fits into the work (speaking mainly at this point about Mad Men since there’s not much in Unknown to think about).

With her terse enunciation, her words come out quickly and feel confined to a small range of possibility, as if she doesn’t really care what happens once they’re out of her mouth. But in action she can be deft and forceful. She is by far Mad Men’s most seductive smoker, much more effortless and hungry than Don and his showy switch of fingers taking cigarettes into and out of his mouth. And who can forget Betty shooting the pigeons in season one? That moment was also a dip into the surreal, but indicative of this inner force January Jones taps into sometimes to give her actions a merciless feel. When she begins to carry out the assassination plot in Unknown—stealing things and smashing through a wall to get to a bomb—she moves confidently and almost with irritation at the novelty of her reversal of energy. I think irritation is actually one of the most successful, visceral emotions she communicates as an actress. Normally it would feel utterly useless and dumb to parse an actor’s “successful emotions” but she invites this kind of critical thinking and it doesn’t detract from the emotional potency of her work.

One of the most electric moments in all of Mad Men so far is when Betty is fighting with Don in the bedroom about disciplining Bobby and she pushes him and he pushes her back. The way she takes the push, her chest like a hollow block as she spins and is forced to take a couple clumsy steps, was more startling than Don’s actual act of pushing. Her movements have the bluntness of  shock, less at Don’s audacity and more at the lack of impact caused by her initial action. When you watch January Jones you get the feeling that she doesn’t really trust speech. Her commitment to it is technical; she never lets a syllable get swallowed. As an actress she just seems more comfortable with movement, and perhaps that is why her actions feel so purposeful. So when she moves with intent and doesn’t get what she wants, her body doesn’t quite know what to do.

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Balibar via Assayas and Desplechin

August 10, 2010

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.

Jeune Anne

December 9, 2009

Durant le tournage d’Au hasard Balthazar, j’ai pris conscience de ce que pouvait être le bonheur de vivre ou, plus exactement, le bonheur de se sentir vivre. Cela ne ressemblait pas tout à fait à ce que j’avais pu lire dans des romans ou voir dans des films; c’était plus brutal, plus sauvage et, me semblait-il, plus ouvert.

[During the filming of Au hasard Balthazar, I became conscious of what the joy of living, or, more precisely, the joy of feeling alive, could be. It didn’t quite resemble what I had been able to read in books or see in films; it was more brutal, more savage and, it seemed to me, more open.]

In Au hasard Balthazar Anne Wiazemsky is a beguiling mix of awkwardness and assertiveness, defiantly unglamorous and inattentive to the romantic possibilities of the camera. In look and mannerism she straddles the line of childhood and adulthood from moment to moment—appearing disarmingly beautiful and poised, then suddenly gangly and graceless. Her deep, unrefined voice and weighty pronunciation add to the contradictions and undeniable magnetism of her screen presence.

Wiazemsky used her memories of the shoot of Balthazar to write a novel entitled Jeune fille, published in France in 2007 by Gallimard and supposedly now available in English from the British publisher Telegram Books, though it has been suspiciously out of stock on Amazon UK since the release date, and I haven’t seen much written about the translation.

Despite the professed fictional nature of her book, it reads like a memoir and I felt her emotional struggles were based in truths, even if the fictionalized Anne has a neater trajectory than Wiazemsky’s own.[1] I approached the book armed only with impressions formed by her fervent political collaborations with husband Jean-Luc Godard, and an awareness of her illustrious family background (her maternal grandfather being the Nobel-winning writer François Mauriac, and her father Polish royalty). I was startled to discover the world of a painfully insecure almost-18-year-old, still trying to cope with the death of her father two years before and entirely untrusting of any unique or artistic capacity within herself.

The book opens as Anne is taken by the effervescent and worldly Florence Carrez (who played Jeanne in Bresson’s 1962 film Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) to meet Bresson at his posh apartment on the Île St. Louis in Paris. The Bresson of my mind was not the dapper, smooth-talking, espadrille-clad man who comes to the door—the stale and grimly serious interviews I’ve seen with him removed any anticipation of romance. But such is the way Anne encounters him. Intimidated by his poise and “discrete elegance,” she feels her own awkwardness amplified. Over and over Bresson has her read a chunk of dialogue from his first film, Les Anges du péché, and despite her sense of doom that she will be exposed for the dull girl she believes herself to be, Bresson quickly becomes enthralled with her (though he doesn’t confess it completely at first).

While this jittery jeune fille may not have made an impression on every director, her rough, unaffected composure played perfectly into Bresson’s philosophies on acting. With strict regimentation, Bresson endeavored to tap into the automatic, unthinking aspects of human nature and interaction. In his mind, for an actor’s performance to be truthful it must be free of inflection, premeditation, and psychologizing. Anne’s lack of confidence made her desperate to please Bresson and this eagerness combined with her “naturally blank” voice struck him passionately.

As their collaboration progresses, predictable warning signs appear in succession, leading you to assume this will be a very familiar story. Bresson’s sudden entry into Anne’s life and his immediate praise of her qualities makes her believe he is somehow able to gauge who she is before she knows herself. And so, she gives herself completely to his instructions and opinions, trusting that he knows how to bring out and accentuate her best tendencies (as both an actress and a maturing woman). She takes pleasure in doing so, letting his visions and idealizations play out on her to his satisfaction.

The bulk of Balthazar was shot on location in Guyancourt, near Versailles. For the two-month summer shoot, Bresson shields Anne from the rest of the crew by insisting she board with him in a separate house, with connecting bedrooms. He claims he needs her with him at all times, that her presence calms him and helps him understand the film he is making. Anne soon becomes acquainted with the Bresson of the night, who takes her on long walks and desires submission from her in a troubling new context. Repulsed by his advances, she consistently pushes him away and wrestles with reconciling her immense admiration for Bresson as an artist and mentor with her uneasiness about his ideas on the nature of their relationship.

Having now been equipped with a base level of confidence and purpose, Anne looks to defining her participation in it, as well as the terms of her relationship with Bresson. More than a few times his behavior disgusted me, especially in moments where he manipulated her to force results for the film and tried to guilt her into being sexual with him, and yet Anne resists vilifying him. Sometimes this was hard to take. But Anne’s presence of mind prevents her from simply being a victim of his idealizations, and both sexually and artistically she asserts herself. (The latter leads to an empowering and devastating act of creative rebellion late in the book that I won’t spoil.)

Anne’s story is really quite a simple and typical coming-of-age account, except it’s set within this tremendous artistic context. What I most relished about it was the way Anne resists succumbing to a potentially dangerous relationship without jeopardizing the wonderful self-realization that Bresson’s encouragement had brought about in her.  And not only that, she achieves an amazing artistic collaboration with him that feels rare within his career, in that it truly feels like a collaboration. On set, Anne has an innate sense of Bresson’s philosophy and aesthetic and slips into the world of his film with ease. Perhaps this accounts for a feeling of immediacy and generosity from Wiazemsky in the film. Usually I don’t respond to the engineered-feeling demureness of Bresson’s actors (I’m thinking of how so often they look down, as a seeming stand-in for actual reflection or feeling) but with Wiazemsky it feels like a natural extension of her own lingering awkwardness. And she shows us warmth I find lacking in most Bresson performances. (Dominique Sanda in Une Femme douce is another exception that comes to mind.)

Jeune fille also offers a delicious peek at Wiazemsky’s first meeting with Godard. The story of her progression from an eighteen-year-old with burgeoning confidence to Godard’s wife and incendiary intellectual partner is a story I hope we can soon read too.


[1] In an interview with Gallimard, she suggests that her own state at the end of the film was much more confused and scattered than the buoyant, expectant ending of the character in the book. But she also implies that her portrayal of Bresson is very much founded in reality, as it was her fascination with his enigmatic persona that in part compelled her to write the book.