Thursday, October 19, 2017

With and without Godard: Deceased Artiste Anne Wiazemsky

Although many of her English-language obits naturally labeled Anne Wiazemsky as the “ex-wife and muse” of Uncle Jean (aka Jean-Luc Godard), it was nice to see that her impeccable first performance in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) was highlighted in the headlines of other obits. In France she was equally billed as “actress and romancier” (novelist). She did indeed have a “second act” to her career when her books (20 in total) were received warmly by both critics and the public from 1988 on.

Several of her novels were romans √† clef based on her own very rich life. She came from royal Russian stock, with her father serving as a French diplomat; her mother was the daughter of Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac. The family moved frequently due to her father’s profession, but Anne became a lifelong Frenchwoman when her family moved to France in 1962.

Au Hasard Balthazar is one of Bresson’s masterpieces (so many masterpieces in such a small body of work — only 13 films). Like all of his work, it’s a quiet picture that has incredible emotional impact because it is so low-key and “observant” of its characters.

Anne was one of Bresson’s “models,” the non-actors he hired to play the lead in his films. She is also one of the few Bresson performers to subsequently become a movie star (Dominque Sanda is the most prominent example). She was a perfect performer for Bresson, as she hit the right notes of innocent and fragile curiosity for her character in Balthazar.

In one of her books she wrote that Bresson was infatuated with her and asked her to marry him. She declined the offer and instead wound up romantically involved with one of Bresson’s most talented fans, Godard. 

She did not, however, have vehicles written for her by JLG, as Anna Karina did, because her marriage to Uncle Jean occurred while he was an ardent Marxist who was making overtly political films — which, nonetheless, happen to feature some of the prettiest women seen in cinema (all lit and framed to perfection by JLG).

She made seven films with Godard, including his arthouse hits La Chinoise (1967) and Sympathy for the Devil (aka One Plus One, 1968); in the other five of the seven films she either has no character name or is uncredited. Her presence in the films is privileged, with her most often playing a “searcher” who is looking to understand politics and its effect on the average person.

This is seen to best advantage in a long scene in La Chinoise where she asks real-life philosopher Francis Jeanson (playing himself) about revolution. Her character Veronique advocates terrorism, but seems ignorant of the consequences of terrorist behavior.

The wondrous “music video” trailer Godard created for the film:

Godard continued to use her as a “searcher” in the scattered but entertaining Sympathy for the Devil.

Several filmmakers openly proclaimed their worship of Godard by emulating his framing and editing style and, most importantly, “stealing” his lead actors. These included Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Tanner (for one film, Le Retour d’Afrique), and a major Funhouse favorite, Marco Ferreri

Ferreri cast Wiazemsky as the “Eve” figure in his post-nuclear Garden of Eden fantasy The Seed of Man (1969, below). In true Ferreri style, the film is both fascinating and, at points, downright odd — and features a beach as one of its main settings.

Pasolini cast Wiazemsky twice, the first time in his brilliant Teorema (1968), which has a plotline that has been ripped off several dozen times (but always without the “downer” ending). She is the daughter of the family that is affected by drifter Terrence Stamp, who sleeps with each member of the clan (including the father!). It’s a strong, well-rendered scenario.

Her second and last time starring in a Pasolini film was Porcile (1969), his wildly allegorical film about capitalism, with the main capitalist here owning a pig farm (get the symbolism?). It’s such an unsubtle allegory that PPP asked his friend Marco Ferreri (no stranger to unsubtle allegories) to costar as one of the capitalists.

Most important, though, are the two stars, both Godard stalwarts. Jean-Pierre Leaud — in his high-energy, fond-of-recitations Godardian incarnation — stars as the scion of the capitalist family, while Wiazemsky plays his politically engaged girlfriend.

Wiazemsky did indeed reinvent herself in the late Eighties, as her first book was published in 1988, the same year that her last movie was released.

Only one of her books has been translated into English thus far (My Berlin Child), but many positive reviews of her novels in French can be found online. In her obit in the left-wing newspaper Liberation, it was noted that “discreetly, book after book, she forged a status as a loved and recognized, often award-winning, novelist.”

Her movie career was indeed memorable, thanks to Godard crafting several indelible images around her. But Bresson’s utilization of her inquisitive, sad-looking visage enshrined her forever in the memory of most fans of great cinema. It’s hard to forget Balthazar once one has seen it.

As a final clip, here is a beautiful moment from Teorema synched to music by Erik Satie: