Posts Tagged ‘robert bresson’

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.