The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.
A career Golden Leopard award at this year’s Locarno Film Festival was given to Bulle Ogier, one the greatest French actresses of her time and one of the cinema’s great physical presences. In the English-speaking world, though, one could be forgiven for an ignorance of who and what Ogier is and was. Unlike Isabelle Huppert or Isabelle Adjani, she has rarely made films outside France — and when she did, it was with European masters like Manoel de Oliveira or Raúl Ruiz, typically not working in English. The festival program consisted of an odd line-up of her films, a series that ranged from historical curiosities (“Les Idoles,” “Et crac,” the Pink Floyd-scored “La Vallée”) to her known classics (“La salamandre”), from minor works (“Belle Toujours”) to a masterpiece like “Le Pont du Nord.” In a career as rich as Ogier’s, it’s puzzling that all five slots weren’t simply allocated to her strongest films; a wide-ranging program could encompass any number of Rivette’s best films, Luis Bunuel’s Oscar-winning “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie,” Fassbinder’s “The Third Generation,” or the three films she made with Marguerite Duras.
But even in her worst films, Ogier is never anything but fascinating. In “La Valée,” directed by Barbet Schroeder, she plays the wife of a French consul in Melbourne who joins a group of explorers in their search for a New Guinea valley “obscured by clouds.” Ogier’s Vivien begins as a very passive woman, staid in her fragile movements, easily influenced by the men of the expedition. This leads to some consciousness-altering experiences with psychedelic drugs, and her performance enters typical Ogier territory. Suddenly, her acting becomes all about the jarring, unfiltered movements of her skeletal frame and doll-like face; possessed of a new interior energy, Ogier becomes above all a mysterious physical presence, as in Rivette’s “Duelle” and the unbeatable 4-hour “L’Amour Fou.”
In one “La Valée’s” best scenes, Vivian wanders away from the camp where her off-screen friends are deep in their own drug trips and makes her way into the bush. After napping at the foot of a tree, held in the tender embrace of a pair of exposed roots, she spots a beautiful snake lying nearby, picks it up, and studies it with a child’s innocence. When the others come looking for her, calling her name through the forest, Vivian is pulled out of the spell cast momentarily by the deadly serpent and — yanking it from its place around her neck — casts it away back into the bush. After her character’s awakening, all of Ogier gestures are imbued with the vacant worldliness of a psychedelic experience. As in “L’Amour Fou,” in which her character disintegrates and expands into seemingly endless variations on the same romantic struggle, “La Vallée” shows that an Ogier performance, stretched out over the course of a film, is often in contradiction with itself.
Ogier’s start was in a theater troupe, where she learned to dance in a variety of styles — with Ogier, as with Jerry Lewis, performance is totally physical — and learned to act as part of an ensemble; to create fiction as a team, as we’d later see in Rivette. Her first film was “Les Idoles,” a tin-eared but still pretty funny satire of the celebrity industry directed by Marc’O, the Situationist who also lead her theater troupe. She soon began to work with French New Wave master Jacques Rivette, also directing theater at the time; their first collaboration was on “L’Amour Fou,” which integrated almost all of Marc’O’s theatre troupe, and later on many others, including “Celine and Julie Go Boating” and “Gang of Four.” Ogier would go on to collaborate many times, on stage and on screen, with Marguerite Duras. The residue of her start in such a thoroughly entrenched theatrical space — the mix of classical plays, dancing, singing, goofy comedy — would never disappear; in as late a film as “Belle Toujours,” there’s no mistaking the specificities of Ogier’s special way with outsized gesture.
Locarno’s small, strange program of films, perhaps, is best imagined as a showcase for her versatility, pitting “Le Pont du Nord,” in which she plays an ex-fugitive, fresh out of jail and with extreme claustrophobia, who finds herself at the heart of a massive conspiracy with seemingly no origin, against the likes of “Les Idoles,” where she’s working on an almost abstract level of physical performance, set as the film is inside an undefined psychedelic space. Even as “Le Pont du Nord” edges towards abstraction, with Rivette restaging some of his favorite setpieces and concepts from Lang, Hitchcock, and kung-fu movies in his self-conscious way, Ogier’s performance remains sensitive and realistic, matching with its ephemeral hints at a subterranean spark of life underneath a dark blanket of depression the political and geographic destruction of a post-1968 Paris that is “Le Pont du Nord’s” secret subject.
Speaking at a discussion of her work with Jean-Michel Frodon in Locarno, Ogier reminisced about her time working with her collaborators and about the mix of life, politics, and art that one always sees in the work she produces. Of course, someone alluded to this in a question. Bulle Ogier, her eyes looking playful as they always did in the movies, responded: “Yes, all art is political. Evidently so.”