Antoine Bourseiller (b. 1930) is one of the best-known theatre directors in France. In 1960, he assumed the direction of the Studio des Champs-Elysées. For two decades, he shared his theatrical adventure with his wife, the actress Chantal Darget. (2) Bourseiller specialized in works rarely seen or never staged in France, among them: Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s Der Turm. As a director, he worked with many well-known actors, including Danièle Delorme (3), Yves Robert (4), Edwige Feuillère (5), Maria Casarès (6), Anna Karina, Sami Frey (7), Chantal Darget and Jean-Louis Trintignant (8). In 1964, he took over the direction of the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse (1964-6). In 1967, as part of Malraux’s “Action culturelle” initiative, he was director of the Centre dramatique national du Sud-Est (1966-75) in Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. This summer, he directed Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio at the Avignon Theatre Festival (9). Although primarily known for his work in the theatre, Bourseiller will be remembered by many cinéphiles for his memorable performance as the young soldier on leave who succeeds in diverting Cleo (Corinne Marchand) in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) (and where Godard and Anna Karina appear in the film within-the-film).
In 2008, Bourseiller published a book of memoirs entitled Sans relâche: Histoires d’une vie, which literally means “No Respite: Stories from a Life” and, in the theatre, the “relâche” is the actors’ day-off. Written as a series of non-chronological scenes, his book captures his enduring enthusiasm for his muse, the theatre. Therein, he also draws a series of portraits of his intimates. One chapter is devoted to the friendship between his family and the Godard-Karina couple, and he succeeds in bringing to life the young Godard, in all his complexity. Bourseiller’s wife appears here under her nickname, Balkis, after the captivating queen of Sheba. Occasionally, Bourseiller addresses his daughter, Marie (10), in his narrative.
The following excerpt gives a behind-the-scenes look at Godard, and Bourseiller’s account complements Charles Bitsch’s souvenirs from the same period (11). With Bourseiller, we revisit Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966), which before being a film was a stage production in Bourseiller’s theatre, as well as Giraudoux’s Pour Lucrèce, a stage production that ultimately never made it to the screen. Bourseiller’s narrative takes us from the amour fou period of Godard’s relation with Anna Karina (12) up until and just after May 68. This year, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of May 68, Bourseiller reminds us of the very particular mood that reigned back then.
After La Chinoise in 1967, Godard notoriously broke with his usual film crew, including Bitsch; his dramatic need for change extended to his personal friendships as well, as Bourseiller père et fils here attest. Antoine Bourseiller’s account is here followed by that of his stepson, the writer Christophe Bourseiller (b. 1957). Christophe Bourseiller is a man of letters who began his protean career as an actor. He describes himself as a “child of the Sixties’ ball”, and Godard, Jean Genet and Louis Aragon figured as godfather figures in his unforgettable childhood. He appears in three Godard films, Une Femme mariée (1964), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1966), and Week End (1967). Christophe Bourseiller is today the author of some thirty works, including an excellent biography of Guy Debord and a history of the French Maoists (13). In 2006, he published his memoirs, L’Aventure moderne, where he revisits his childhood and his memories of Godard.
The styles of the two Bourseillers could not be more different: while Antoine’s account is highly romantic, Christophe’s tone is down-to-earth, bordering on the acerbic. Together they form not only a diptych of Jean-Luc Godard, revealing conflicting aspects of his personality, but also a portrait of a changing France in the 1960s. At the end of their friendship with the filmmaker, both Bourseillers remember him dropping by for a bowl of soup, a memory that perhaps triggered the curious rejoinder in Passion (1982), Godard’s film that particularly reverberates with the failed revolution: “Mange ta soupe.”
If today Godard’s alleged criticisms of Antoine Bourseiller as an advocate of bourgeois theatre seem incomprehensible, given Bourseiller’s repertory and his struggles to stay afloat, they are also a cogent reminder of just how different the worldview of many persons, including Godard, was forty years ago.
Sally Shafto would like to thank: Antoine Bourseiller, Christophe Bourseiller, Myriam Anderson (Actes Sud), Jean-Claude Gaubert, Sophie Forrester and Charles Bitsch.
- “Mange ta soupe”, literally meaning “eat your soup”, is a parental injunction to children at the dinner table, the equivalent of “Eat your vegetables” in the Anglo-Saxon world.
- Chantal Darget (1934-1988): stage actress who appeared in six films, including Godard’s Bande à part and Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966).
- The actress Danièle Delorme, wife of the filmmaker Yves Robert. Delorme (b. 1926) has made some 70 films, most of which are unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world. Cinéphiles will recognize her as the florist in the film-within-the-film in Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7.
- Yves Robert (1920-2002): actor who also directed some twenty films. Best known in the Anglo-Saxon world for his adaptations of two Marcel Pagnol novels: Le Château de ma mère and La Gloire de mon père (both 1990).
- Edwige Feuillère (1907-1998): French actress who had an international career. Best remembered for her role in Max Ophüls’ De Mayerling à Sarajevo (1940).
- Maria Casarès (1922-96): beautiful, Spanish-born stage actress who also occasionally worked in film, best remembered for her role in Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du bois de Boulogne (1945) and Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950). It is said that Bresson was so displeased with her theatrical delivery that he vowed thereafter never again to work with professional actors.
- Sami Frey (1937): very talented stage and film actor, and husband of Delphine Seyrig. He plays Franz in Bande à part. His performances in Jeanne Labrune’s Blood and Sand (1987) and Gérard Mordillat’s En compagnie d’Antoinin Artaud (1993) are outstanding.
- Jean-Louis Trintignant (b. 1930): distinguished French actor whose career took off with Claude Lelouch’s Un Homme et une femme (1966). Other memorable performances include Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud and Costa-Gavras’ Z (both 1969).
- Set in Renaissance Italy and centred on a political conspiracy, Lorenzaccio (1834) was already during de Musset’s lifetime considered unplayable. Sarah Bernhardt was the first to stage the play, first in her fifties and again in her sixties, both times playing the lead role. In 1945, Gaston Baty mounted the play, after having butchered the text. In 1951, Jean Vilar revived the play, and for the first time the lead role was played by a man: the young Gérard Philippe. Vilar shortened the play but did not otherwise alter the text. Antoine Bourseille wanted for a long time to stage this play, without costumes and no stage sets, thereby emphasizing the text. Notes taken from Antoine Bourseiller’s introduction to a private dress rehearsal of the play, Paris, 26 June 2008.
- Born in 1964, Marie Bourseiller became the first female toreador in France, under the name Mari Sara.
- See Charles Bitsch’s interview published in issue no. 46 of Senses of Cinema.
- In this regard, it is worth remembering that Rivette’s film L’Amour fou (1968) was based on the Godard-Karina relationship.
- Les Maoïostes: la folle histoire des gardes rouges français. (Paris: Points, 2008). This study includes a short chapter on Godard.