Interview: Bulle Ogier
It’s difficult to overlook the quiet impact Bulle Ogier can have on movies big and small, and more difficult still to account fully for the actress’s influence and output, evidenced in recent and upcoming high-profile retrospectives of her work. New Yorkers are about to be treated to a refresher on some of Ogier’s best films, in the one-two punch of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s upcoming program of somnambulant Jacques Rivette and David Lynch double features, which follows BAMcinématek’s U.S. theatrical premiere run of Out 1, Rivette’s 13-hour 1971 opus, co-starring Ogier. The Lynch/Rivette series offers the chance to see four of Bulle’s major collaborations with Rivette in 35mm, a very rare and singular experience. The significance of the latter’s big-screen presentation I’m left, like a Rivette character, only to imagine.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Bulle Ogier in August at the Locarno Film Festival, where she received a Golden Leopard for Lifetime Achievement. We talked shortly after a screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle toujours (06), the second of two essential collaborations between Ogier and the Portuguese filmmaker. Prompted by this film, in which Ogier appears almost as an empyrean ghost haunting the cinema—a specter of gestures familiar and iconic—I couldn’t help but proceed by starting at the beginning of her film career, in 1968.
Les Idoles is such an interesting film when you put it up against L’Amour fou, also from the same year—1968. There’s a connection between them: you and Jean-Pierre Kalfon are in both films, there are similarities in the gestures. He even wears his glasses the same way in both, dangling below his chin.
Well, Les Idoles is the result of six years of theater. We had a group, with Marc’O. During the Fifties, he was with Guy Debord and the Situationists, then with François Dufrene, and then finally he set up a school in order to put on his own texts. So we stayed together for six years—all the people in the film—and several cineastes would come and watch us, like Jean Douchet, for example, who is around today, and Jacques Rivette. And so Rivette built the cast for L’Amour fou out of the players in the group. It certainly was not the same work, except that at that point we knew each other so well that there was no time wasted, no intimidation. That’s why there’s such freedom to be seen in L’Amour fou.
And in Les Idoles, your performance, as in a lot of your work, is split between two registers: one very interior and one really goofy, musical, and exterior.
In theater there is no real interiority in the same way as in cinema. It doesn’t exist. We performed Les Idoles for four years. In the space where the characters hold the press conference in the film—that was our theater. And we knew that once you’re in front of the camera, you don’t have the same way of performing it as in the theater. It can’t be the same.
Rivette has a very famous expression: “Every film is a documentary of its own making.” Is it strange that these movies are as much memories of their making as they are fixed objects of art?
Twenty years after his first film, Paris nous appartient [Paris Belongs to Us], Rivette wanted to make another film in which Paris was the main character, the principal actress. That’s Le Pont du Nord.
Le Pont du Nord
Yes, and Paris s’en va [the short Rivette shot before Le Pont du Nord in 1981]. The city likewise disappears as the film goes on.
Yes, of course. There’s the destruction of a whole neighborhood of Paris. As you probably know, he really used Paris as a board game. You’re probably aware that making another film about Paris was difficult—he didn’t know how to do it. I was making a film in Switzerland, I sent him a postcard, one with a small cat on the front. I asked: “Jacques, when will we make another film?” I’d just worked on The Third Generation with Fassbinder, in which I had just been released from prison for being a terrorist. And when I came back to my country, I suggested that it could be the beginning of a film, as it is now in Le Pont du Nord. Jacques was seduced by that idea. And since we didn’t have any money ourselves, Barbet [Schroeder] found some for a budget. But so little that we could only do that film shooting outside. I suggested that the character I was playing could feel claustrophobic, having just got out of prison. Which gave Jacques the impetus to continue.
Every day he wrote the scenario around different places in Paris and around that heavy lid that we felt above us in the 1970s, when all the old illusions that had emerged in 1968 were suddenly gone. We were all depressed. And there were all the scandals at the time… Le Pont du Nord was full of the disillusions caused by these scandals, of all those people who wanted to and still hoped to change the world. All those affairs, scandals, lawsuits were put into the background of the film. But at the same time, you might already know that Jacques started from the classical idea of Don Quixote: Baptiste, the young girl, was the Don Quixote. This is all underneath the surface. Jacques brings a lot of elements and then one must sort it out. He showed us Scarecrow a lot—it was his inspiration for Le Pont du Nord.
The one with Gene Hackman?
The film where the cowboys ride through New York. Jerry Schatzberg. There’s the old cowboy who teaches his young friend lots of things. In this case, Jacques wanted to do the opposite: it’s the young woman who teaches the older, gives tips.
And at this time, there’s also Duelle , in which a young girl is caught between two battling goddesses; Celine and Julie Go Boating , of course, which is all about a totally equal friendship shared by women. Then in Le Pont du Nord, it’s a new relationship—you have the teacher, the pupil…
Quite true, yes. Duelle was part of a series of films by Rivette, called the Girls of Fire. There was one with Maria Schneider. It was a total flop because Maria was not well at the time. Joe Dallesandro was also in it. He’s in Warhol’s films.
For me, I was seeing Belle Toujours earlier today in light of Oliveira’s death. There’s a scene where you arrive at a dinner with Michel Piccoli. Séverine [Ogier] is hesitant to enter, and your body wavers as if being pulled in two different directions. It’s an echo of your acting style in the earlier movies, and it’s really moving to see in a contemporary context, considering that the work of yours I love is so much about a specific historical moment, a feeling. How do you feel seeing the movies in this new context?
I saw Et Crac  again today, I hadn’t seen it since ’69. And there are a lot of memories here of Les Idoles also, making it with the troupe. I really didn’t prepare for Locarno at all. I just got a last-minute anguish to think about what I will say. It was my 76th birthday yesterday. I’ve had the feeling of late, seeing my work again, that it’s somebody else on the screen. For the last few years, I always have that feeling. And since one always doubts, when I see L’Amour fou, The Salamander, La Vallée I think that I was quite pretty, not too bad, and not a bad actress [laughs]. But ultimately that it was somebody else. Truly. Have you seen La Vallée?
No, it’s showing tomorrow afternoon [in the festival].
It’s a film the younger generation haven’t seen much. Jean-Michel Frodon was telling us that he had a kind of cinema seminary for political science students, and after a year, he asked his students what film they wanted to watch, and they all said La Vallée. He was quite surprised, and Barbet was as well, when Jean-Michel told us about this yesterday. It was young people who championed that film [then], and the same thing happens today. What [Frodon’s students] were working on was a script for the big environmental conference in October in Paris. And they said La Vallée. Bizarre, no?
What’s so unique about your career when I think about it is that you began in this year, 1967, 1968.
In cinema, yes.
And you remind me of stage comics, vaudevillians who moved into movies in the Twenties and early Thirties. You remind me a lot of Marion Davies, especially in Mon cas . It’s the same image and gesture as in Les Idoles—a close-up of your eyes moving rapidly from side to side. It’s cinematic but it also comes from the theater tradition, a comic theatre tradition…
Oliveira had silent films in mind. He asked for that—it was his way of directing, of eliciting what he wanted.
Mon cas is such a great example of a big Bulle Ogier performance but also the same gait, the same walk—there’s traces of all that in the Rivette films, Les Idoles…
Marc’O formed a school of 40 people, and after a couple of years there was just 10 of us, because people realized that they weren’t meant to be actors. And after that, I used what I learned with Marc’O, who gave us very deep teaching, dance lessons, jazz, classical. With his texts, with improvisation—all kinds. At the time, theater represented Grotowski, The Living Theatre. This is the kind of thing we were doing, and later I tried to integrate all of this. Just as I used the way Duras was asking me to speak the text, not just in her films and in her plays, but elsewhere as well.
And, to come back to Oliveira, in Belle Toujours, there’s one point where I pass by Piccoli in the street outside a shop. I was walking normally, and so was he. The camera was in a building on the first floor opposite, with Oliveira. He was 98 at the time. Several times he walked down to show me how to walk in the manner of the silent films. It’s the same thing in Mon cas. I could only do it because I had all those years of preparation with Marc’O. Not only did we practice for theater but every day we would go to the cinema. And we learned to be actors based on the films we were seeing. Musicals, comedies, silent films, Hitchcock movies, Vincente Minnelli, all that.
There’s a great interview where Rivette talks about going to see All About Eve with Juliet Berto. Of course, they hate it and he spends a while denigrating it. Was it the same thing in these communities—Marc’O, Rivette, Duras—seeing movies regularly and talking about them afterward?
With L’Amour fou, he sent Kalfon and me to see Hitchcock’s films. The one with Sean Connery, Marnie. Very good. It’s been a long time since I last saw it. We watched that and various other films. Naturally, all the films of the time. I learned to act through the theater, but also later through the films we saw together, silent or otherwise.
Duelle is so obviously indebted to the cheap, B-films of the American cinema. Even the performances are straight out of that stuff. The costumes, the ghostly movements.
How come you’ve seen all these films? Bravo! Not many people have seen Duelle. Rivette didn’t like it at the time. It was a disappointment for him. But I know that he saw it again maybe six or seven years ago in a new copy and was extremely happy with it.
There’s a few of us Rivette disciples around. My friend took up karate when she was living in Rome, inspired by the kata sequences [with Pascale Ogier] in Le Pont du Nord.
Ah, beautiful. I know that Pascale would be very happy to hear that.