Anne Wiazemsky: French actress, novelist and inspiration to French new wave directors

Synonymous with La Nouvelle Vague both on and off the screen, she married Jean-Luc Godard and became an acclaimed novelist 

Literary talent: the actress in Pasolini’s 1968 film ‘Teorema’
Literary talent: the actress in Pasolini’s 1968 film ‘Teorema’

Anne Wiazemsky made her acting debut in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, playing a naive country girl named Marie whose beloved donkey is tormented by a series of callous owners.

The donkey, named Balthazar, becomes a symbol of human cruelty toward other living things, and the film is recognised as a masterpiece.

“Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema,” critic Roger Ebert wrote, “and Au Hasard Balthazar is his most heartbreaking prayer.”

Wiazemsky, who died aged 70 of breast cancer, went on to star in number of French New Wave films in the 1960s, including several by her husband, director Jean-Luc Godard. She also became an acclaimed novelist.

But it was Balthazar that made the the untrained Wiazemsky, then in her teens, a sensation. Her uninflected, emotionally vulnerable acting style was so compelling that Bresson told the film’s other actors to model their performances after hers.

“Watch Anne” was his advice to others, she told a newspaper in 2007. “She is Marie because she accepts simply to be herself without bringing intent or psychology to the role,” she recalled him saying. “It was not his intention to teach me how to be an actress. Almost against the grain, I felt the emotion the role provoked in me, and later, in other films, I learned how to use that emotion.”

While making Balthazar, the 65-year-old Bresson developed an infatuation with his young star – and, sadly if not surprisingly, acted outrageously.

“At first, he would content himself by holding my arm, or stroking my cheek,” Wiazemsky wrote in a 2007 memoir. “But then came the disagreeable moment when he would try to kiss me ... I would push him away and he wouldn’t insist, but he looked so unhappy that I always felt guilty.”

Wiazemsky married Godard when she was 20 (Getty)

During that time Wiazemsky met Godard, already renowned for his 1960 film Breathless, which launched the nouvelle vague, the French New Wave movement. They were married in 1967, while Godard was directing La Chinoise, which featured Wiazemsky as a student caught up in the Maoist political fervour of the time.

She also appeared in Godard’s 1967 film Weekend, an absurdist comedy in which a middle-class couple drive to the country, each plotting to kill the other. In 1972, she acted opposite Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in Tout Va Bien, a film co-directed by Godard that cast a critical eye on consumer society and conventional marriage.

Wiazemsky had a prominent role in 1969’s Theorem by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which a mysterious stranger, played by Terence Stamp, seduces every member of a family, male and female. In 1973, she starred in Michele Rosier’s George Who?, a biopic about French writer George Sand.

Wiazemsky and Godard were divorced in 1979. After her final film role in 1988, she devoted herself to writing.

Long before then, her experiences with Bresson, Godard and Pasolini and other auteurs led her to adopt a philosophical approach to the obsessive nature of filmmakers.

“It’s almost banal to speak of the fascination that a director can have for his lead actress,” she said in 2007. “The emotion that existed between Bresson and [me], I experienced again with Pasolini when we made Theorem. It can give rise to good performances. But Pasolini was homosexual. It doesn’t always mean you’re going to sleep together.”

Anne Wiazemsky was born on 14 May 1947, in Berlin. Her father, who was descended from Russian nobility, was a French diplomat. Her mother was the daughter of François Mauriac, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Her critically acclaimed books include 1993 novel ‘Canines’

Beginning in 1989, Wiazemsky published more than a dozen well-regarded books, including a 1993 novel, Canines, which received the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. A 1998 novel, A Handful of People, received the grand prize of the French Academy.

Wiazemsky wrote two books about her life with Godard, one of which – One Year Later – formed the basis of a 2017 film, Redoubtable, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, whose previous film, The Artist, won five Academy Awards in 2012, including best picture and best director.

Hazanavicius had a hard time persuading Wiazemsky to allow the book to be adapted for a movie.

“Before putting the phone down, I said it was a shame,” he told Screen International magazine, “because I’d found the work so funny, to which she replied, ‘Really? So do I, but no one else seems to. I thought I was the only one’.”

Hazanavicius “understood something very profound about Jean-Luc,” Wiazemsky said in May. “Out of tragedy, he made a comedy.”

Wiazemsky is played by Stacy Martin in Redoubtable, and Godard is portrayed with remarkable fidelity, down to his tinted eyeglasses, by French actor Louis Garrel.

Godard, now 86, lives in Switzerland.

“I haven’t heard anything from him in a long time,” Wiazemsky had said. “I know that to be on the safe side Hazanavicius has not sent him a DVD.”

Anne Wiazemsky, French actress and writer, born 14 May 1947, died 5 October 2017

© The Washington Post

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