This interview was conducted in French in May 27, 2009 at Marie-Christine Questerbert’s apartment during the Luc Moullet Retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. (1) Her portrait of the filmmaker succeeds in deepening our understanding of how Moullet the director works.
She belongs to what sociologist François Ricard has called the “lyrical generation,” (2) that first wave of the baby boomers who stormed the Paris barricades in May 1968. In the aftermath of that failed May, young French women went on to spearhead the advances of the French women’s movement in the 1970s. Traveling was important to Questerbert and her generation, and she emphasises here the importance of her trips to Formentera, the U.S. and Mexico for enlarging her worldview.
She first became exposed to acting when her younger brother Hugues Quester (Prix Gérard Philippe) began acting as an adolescent; at fourteen, he rehearsed Beckett with renowned theatre director Roger Blin. She became further acquainted with the artistic world at a prep school in a Paris suburb where her fellow students were the offspring of stars and moviemakers. With no prior experience, Moullet offered her the lead female role in Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl is a Gun, 1971). A Western, the film was shot in the Southern Alps and stars Questerbert and Jean-Pierre Léaud, already a well-established actor. Questerbert suffered a traumatic accident on the set. She fell into a gully after advancing with her eyes closed under Moullet’s direction. Following a month recuperating in the hospital, she finished the shoot.
In 1975, Moullet called upon her again for Anatomie d’un rapport (Anatomy of a Relationship). It is a daring and ever relevant film on the state of the heterosexual couple that the filmmaker made with his wife, Antonietta Pizzorno, during the waning days of militant feminism in France. A refrain therein is the expression “prendre son pied” (3) (to get off or to achieve orgasm) and the film examines up close male vs. female desire.
Off-screen, Questerbert was the partner of the Egyptian André Chalem, a friend of Youssef Chahine’s. Their daughter, Zeline, is a composer and singer in Tel Aviv.
Although Questerbert has acted in other films—notably Danièle Dubroux’s Border Line (1992), Sophie Fillière’s Grande petite (1993) and Pascal Bonitzer’s Encore (1996)—her two most significant and substantial roles remain Une Aventure de Billy le Kid and Anatomie d’un rapport and this interview focuses on these two films. Moullet also called upon her for cameo appearances in his two most recent films: Le Prestige de la mort (Death’s Glamour, 2007) and Chef-d’oeuvre? (2010).
While her brother made a name for himself as an actor, Marie-Christine has preferred to alternate her professional activities. She began writing film criticism in the 1970s and was in charge of the film column for the weekly Maintenant. (4) In 1988, she published a much appreciated book of interviews with Italian screenwriters. (5)
Her directorial credits include Octopus de natura (1972), a nine-minute short that consists of a single shot in black and white in the Southern Alps, Moullet’s fetish geographical setting. Her first feature film, La Chambre obscure (The Dark Room, 2000), selected for the Quinzaine des réalisateurs at Cannes, is an exquisite medieval tale about female desire, based on Boccaccio’s Decameron. Visually inspired by illuminated manuscripts, it stars a radiant Caroline Ducey, fresh from Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999). (6) Marie-Christine Questerbert is currently at work on a new film.
Did you grow up in Paris?
Not really. I was born by accident in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower… But at the time my parents were living in La Baule on the Atlantic coast in southern Brittany, just below the Morbihan. La Baule was already a popular seaside resort. That’s where my first years were spent.
Later, for professional reasons my father wanted to live in Paris… My parents found an apartment but it was too small so they boarded me from the age of five or six in a religious institution run by Catholic nuns in Anjou; the mother superior was a cousin of my mother’s. And they put my younger sister and brother with a wet nurse.
That’s pretty young.
Yes, it is young to be separated from your parents. There are things to say about this early period of my life. I knew that religion had played a role in my parents’ lives but that as a result of the war they had lost their faith… I was in the strange position of being inside this religious institution knowing that my father no longer believed.
Knowing he no longer believed created a certain distance between me and all those Catholic rituals, which of course I couldn’t escape, first of all because my cousin was the Mother Superior. At the same time, everything seemed surreal to me. After two or three years, I was sent to another school in Anjou. Although it was not religious, it was still impregnated with a Catholic atmosphere. This part of France is well described by Hervé Bazin in his novel with the character Folcoche, for example. (7) Recently, I came across his novel Vipère au poing and in reading it, I recognised this area where I had lived as a child.
Tell me about your family name. Is Questerbert Breton?
Yes, it is. There is even a town that is called “Questembert.” Changes in spelling occur because people often wrote poorly and our name was slightly changed.
What does it mean in Breton?
In Breton, it means “golden chestnuts” because the city of Questerbert is surrounded by vast forests of chestnut trees. The name was romanised. The “k” in Breton became a “qu” etc.
Your full name is Marie-Christine Rachel Questerbert?
Yes, my middle name comes from my father’s mother whose name was Rachel.
I noticed that in the credits of your films you play with your name.
In Billy le Kid, you are “Rachel Kesterber” and then in Anatomie d’un rapport you have a different name.
Christine Hébert. There, I took only the end of the name. I altered my name because I was beginning to work as a critic and I didn’t want to mix everything up. I wanted to keep my two activities distinct.
There was a period in my early education … after the sixth grade in junior high school, when I went to the Delambre High School in Paris in the 14th district where I stayed two or three years. Afterwards, I was sent to a boarding school in Rambouillet where many of my friends were the children of stars and filmmakers. Their parents couldn’t take care of them and they were boarded in this school about fifty kilometers outside of Paris. I attended a lot of schools in my youth; fortunately, they got progressively better. This one was a coed school—that was great. The girls went home in the evening, but there was a big meeting room for us all in one wing of the school.
I imagine that at that time a coed high school was still relatively rare. Do you remember any of your friends?
I recall that we nicknamed the chief supervisor “Hitchcock” because he looked a little like Hitchcock and he took advantage of it. There was the son of well-known film distributor who has since become a filmmaker but whose name slips my mind. What was particular about this school is that we had a sort of foreshadowing of a student revolt against institutional authority—May 68 avant l’heure. The day-students smuggled food in for the students who refused to go to class; we were on strike. I’ve often wondered if this prefiguration of what was to come was because most of the students, not me, but my classmates, had parents in show business?
At that time, I had a girlfriend who had visited the Balearic Islands off the Spanish coast. Since I had never been on vacation other than in Brittany or Anjou, I took a job to make some money and then I took the train and then a plane from Barcelona to Ibiza. And I discovered the atmosphere that Barbet Schroeder’s film More (1969) would later recount. (8) I visited Formentera, (9) an island opposite Ibiza. That would have been in 1966, I think. I returned there the following year and once more, later. There were all kinds of people there, from London, from New York, African Americans playing the saxophone. It was a platform between Morocco, England and the U.S. For me, it was a kind of melting pot that opened me up to the world. I saw that another life was possible, a more international life. I was lucky to have had at that time an excellent philosophy teacher, Jean-Claude Bonne who also writes about art. He initiated me into philosophy and taught me how to look at paintings. … The fact that I already spoke English helped me a lot.
My English improved when I was at home with my parents during high school. There was an American family right next door and their kids were about the same age as we were. We were always over at their place or vice versa; I lived a sort of double life as a young American. That too stimulated me. Sometimes I would be asked to baby-sit because our parents wanted to go bowling. I was exposed to the American way of life with popcorn, hot dogs and coke and I listened to all the latest records on 45 r.p.m. records… Part of my family was also then living in the U.S.; I had an aunt there who would send us clothes and other gifts. I also had two uncles who had left as stowaways on a ship so they could work in a factory in the U.S. and be near my aunt. They pursued the American myth of the “self-made man.”
Did they stay in the U.S.?
My aunt stayed. But my two uncles returned to France after having achieved some success… I was always focused on the world beyond my own country. I like France, but I always wanted to enlarge my horizons; this desire goes back very far… When I saw that things were returning to the old order after the uprisings of May 68, my first idea was to take a plane from Brussels and to go see the other side of the Atlantic. I told myself that the American way of life would eventually come to Europe and that I might as well go take a look for myself.
After May 1968, you visited the USA?
Yes… I left at the end of June or the beginning of July. By myself.
When I got to Kennedy airport, I called a young American guy, a musician I met at Formentera. He told me he was now renting loft spaces in New York for rock bands. And on one floor he had his own pad…
He invited me over but the situation quickly got out of hand because of the music, the rehearsals and then I realised that my friend was doing drugs and I told him: “Listen, you’ve let me down. Look what you’ve become. What’s the matter with you?”… I also met people in the street and we would have discussions.
For me, this opening onto the world all started with Formentera. And many of the people I knew there, I later saw in Paris. As an adolescent, I lived in an international milieu. I would climb over the wall of the prep school in Rambouillet to come to Paris but at the same time, I also worked hard. There was so much going on and then May 68 came…
When did you begin your studies at the Sorbonne?
I was at the Sorbonne and also at Censier where I studied logic with Jacques Bouveresse, but I went all over Paris for my classes, as far as Nanterre to study with Jean Rouch, to Vincennes for Michel Foucault, to the EHESS [École des hautes études en sciences sociales] for Christian Metz and Roland Barthes and also to Normal Sup for Louis Althusser.
So how did you meet Luc Moullet in all that? I’ve heard that in 1967 you were sitting on a park bench and you met one of his assistants from the shoot of Les Contrebandières.
It must have been before 1967 because it happened before I was sent to Rambouillet.
In which case, it was perhaps Brigitte et Brigitte and not Les Contrebandières.
Yes, it was Brigitte et Brigitte.
That makes more sense since the topic of Brigitte et Brigittte is the student scene in Paris. Moullet must have shot that in 1965.
I remember that I was still a school kid with my book bag. That was my first indirect contact with Luc. At that time, I didn’t know who he was.
In 1965, he wasn’t really known. Did you meet him personally?
No, just his assistant on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Was he looking for extras, perhaps for the classroom scenes where Eric Rohmer plays a professor?
Probably. I said no because I had too many exams and I had really had to work at that high school…
Let’s get back to your first contact with Luc. After having taking part in the demonstrations in May 1968, you went to the U.S. How long did you spend there?
I stayed a total of four months, two months before and two months after my trip to Mexico. I liked New York a lot… but after a week I had very little money left so I called my aunt and told her I was in New York and wanted to come visit her… I was also very attracted to Detroit, that part of America… I had the opportunity to visit the Ford factories there —the sight of all those machines and those workers stripped to the waist was impressive! The workers were often African-Americans or immigrants… My aunt socialised with the Italian-American community. I saw this community of Europeans in the U.S. and how they lived. I could imagine their lives in this big city in the middle of the U.S.
The Civil Rights movement was very active in Detroit at that time. Later, you went to Mexico? In Anatomie d’un rapport you tell a story about your trip to Mexico that is hilarious!
First, I want to finish telling you my American experience. I didn’t want to stay in Detroit. I think that I always had this desire for exploration; otherwise, I would have stayed in Ibiza. Perhaps my being shut up in that religious institution at a very young age is the source of this desire. In any case, after Detroit, I hesitated between California and Mexico.
And you chose Mexico.
Yes. California fascinated me a lot—San Francisco, etc. but I thought that California would just be an inferior, Americanised Mexico. I thought Mexico would be more interesting. That was my reasoning. I took a plane that stopped in Dallas and in Dallas I met a young American traveling by herself and dressed in a mini-skirt. I spoke to her in the plane for El Paso. Her name was Cathy Maloney and we became best friends. We were together almost all the time in Mexico, fortunately…
Cathy was from Chicago … and her father was a professor. We stayed together three months in Mexico. From time to time, I got the latest news from Paris and when I saw that the situation wasn’t improving, I decided to delay my return as long as possible. Initially, I wanted to return via Cuba… At the time, you could fly from Mexico City to Havana to Prague and then onto Paris. But the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia curtailed my travel plans. The Russian intervention signaled the end of many things. When I returned to Paris, I enrolled at the university again.
Is the story you tell in Anatomie d’un rapport really true? It’s so funny! And at the end you announce that after that incident in Mexico you no longer wanted to leave Paris…
Yes, I had the feeling of having gone very far, and not just geographically. Things could have turned out badly. I left Acapulco with a guy who wrote science fiction. I barely knew him; we’d only spoken a couple of times in a bar on the beach. I mentioned the address of an Indian that was given to me by some musicians in Mexico; they said to me “go on, you’ll see.” It was that hippie attitude that dominated at the time. To make a little money, Cathy and I put on a light show in a bar in the center of Mexico. We projected lights on a screen to animate the café and give it a psychedelic atmosphere. I also appeared in a couple of commercials for a Mexican director… We were put up in a superb villa in Cuernavaca where we shot two commercials for potato chips…
You returned to Paris in the fall of 1968?
Yes, and I continued studying philosophy… There were so many interesting branches of philosophy to study. I did a Master’s. For professors, I had Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Rancière, Hubert Damisch and others. I was fascinated by all these great minds, not to mention Julia Kristeva.
How did your meeting with Luc Moullet come about?
I saw an article in the newspaper about the G.R.E.C. [le Groupement de recherches cinématographiques]. In the aftermath of May 1968, this organization was founded to help persons with film projects who didn’t have a diploma from one of the film schools. Luc was part of the advisory board.
This was an attempt to open up the world of cinema a little more?
Yes. There wasn’t much money, but they still managed to get some money from the government enabling young persons with no formal training to make their first film. It was an attempt to bypass the elitism of the film schools where very few students were accepted… There was a competition and I submitted my project. My film was the first to receive financing from the G.R.E.C.…
And when Luc read your script, did he know that one of his assistants had been in touch with you a few years earlier for Brigitte and Brigitte?
No, not at all. I was politically active and he was interested in my project. I had the idea to make a film about the activities of Mormons in France. They were originally from the U.S., Australia or Canada. They told people that they could get rich by selling detergent.
You had to sell boxes of detergent to your friends. It was a forerunner of the “Tupperware” parties in the 1970s, sold by word of mouth… It was really a strange phenomenon. Of course, people would end up with lots of detergent. It was a complete swindle! That was the subject of my first film.
What is the title?
It’s called “Buy Me, Sell Me,” a short of about 20 minutes… I didn’t know the ins and outs of the Paris film world, so I called Luc for help. Money was so tight, I didn’t know how I was going to finish it.
Luc gave me some leads. He sent me to some people who had an editing table; he told me which lab could help me. Thanks to him, I was able to finish the film. But for other reasons, I’m not very happy with it. At the time, there weren’t many women making films… My intention with “Buy Me, Sell Me” was to make a critical film, but my cameraman and my sound engineer didn’t cooperate. They liked this organization that sold detergent and they didn’t listen to me. For instance, when I would say “cut,” they would continue the take. But it was a documentary and there wasn’t much filmstock…
Did you shoot it in 16mm?
Yes, it was shot on Kodak 16mm reversal film.
The film milieu at the time was definitely macho. Women were just beginning to enter filmmaking in a significant way.
Consequently, we weren’t taken very seriously… That experience taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with people you trust.
How did Moullet happen to offer you the role in Billy le Kid? The other evening at the Pompidou, he told us it was Jean-Pierre Léaud who contacted him to work together. That’s how the film got started.
Well, that’s certainly possible. Actors here often get in touch with directors. Later, Luc began to think about a topic. But why a Western?
Moullet always says that the “roubines,” this incredible landscape in the Southern Alps, are as important as the actors in his films. Perhaps he simply thought that a Western would allow him to showcase this unusual geographical area.
I received Luc’s proposition out of the blue. It was unexpected because my brother was already an actor and in my head, I had divided the world in two.
Hugues who is two years younger than you was already an actor in 1969? (10)
He began acting at the age of 14. A theatre director took notice of him when he was very young and took him under his wing… In the beginning my parents weren’t too keen on the idea; my sister and I protected him so he could do what he wanted.
Since he was acting on stage, I made a conscious decision to move towards film. I never dared venture into the world of theatre, which disappointed my brother because he would have liked us to work together. But you can’t do everything in life. In each field, there are so many obstacles…
Was there a real script for Une Aventure de Billy le Kid? Or was it written from day to day? Or was there just a brief outline that you improvised from?
No, Luc had a real script. Oddly, I can’t seem to find my copy…, which is a pity. I must put my hands on it one of these days.
In the beginning, I was very surprised because it was a Western and because Luc had offered me the lead female role and my co-star was Jean-Pierre Léaud who already had a lot of substantial acting experience with different directors.
Were you a cinephile in your youth?
Not as a very young child but later yes. When I was at boarding school, my grandfather took me to see films in provincial cinemas. At the time, you could see a lot of films in small towns. I remember in particular watching Leslie Caron on screen. That’s how I liked the cinema, in this first stage of identification.
How long did the shoot in the Southern Alps last? A month?
The shoot took place in two periods, perhaps June and the first week of July and then there was my accident, which imposed a three-week break and then we finished shooting in the Alps at the end of August.
So the accident took place in July?
Yes, in my memory, it was July.
In an interview with Gérard Courant (11) you briefly hold up a letter from the hospital in Digne, I think. It was for insurance purposes and the dates of the shoot are given: June 18 – July 17, 1970.
Then, we should go by that. After the accident, there was inevitably a break because I had to remain in bed. I fractured my lumbar vertebra, which doesn’t heal right away. Fortunately, my spinal cord was not damaged. I was pretty lucky.
I was taken aback when you spoke about your accident during the round-table at the Centre Pompidou. Why did you bring it up when the accident happened such a long time ago and you’re still friends with Luc? Was it the publication of his book of interviews that irritated you? (12)
No, not at all. In any case, I intended to talk about it because on the eve of the retrospective I had another accident in a theatre where I broke my wrist. I immediately wondered how it was possible to have this kind of repetition just before Luc’s retrospective. I needed him to recognise the ambiguous nature of this accident and the precarious situation he put me in during the shoot of Billy le Kid, so that it wouldn’t happen to me again! And I needed not only his acknowledgement but also Antoinetta’s, since she was there too.
Antonietta was the assistant director on the film?
No, she was in charge of continuity. They hadn’t known each other for long, but they were already a couple. Unfortunately, the director of photography, Jean Gonnet, is no longer around to tell us what he saw.
Oh yes, Gonnet, I interviewed him during my research on the Zanzibar films. He did the colour part of Serge Bard’s Détruisez-vous. And what about J.J. Flori? Wasn’t he on the set?
Gonnet was primarily in charge of shooting the film. After my accident, J. J. Flori took over for the second part. But Gonnet died not very long ago and I’m still annoyed with myself for not going to see him because he lived in my neighborhood. I could have learned what he saw… I’d still like to go and photograph what I could see, because I absolutely couldn’t guess what was underneath. If I’d known, I would have been very frightened.
In this scene, you were set up in the house of the village mayor?
Yes. We were in the village of Mariaud. Luc had already shot there for his documentary Terres noires  about a decade earlier. In the interim, the local population had diminished considerably. And what Luc says in Terres noires is true because I saw it again last night.
What does he say in Terres noires?
He says that the people of Mariaud don’t like to be filmed, nor do they like their homes to be filmed. You need to understand that when I had this staircase to descend, I was coming from inside the house where the mayor and his wife were having a fight… There was a lot of tension on the set. The mayor didn’t want Luc to film his house and I heard them arguing. I went out; it was noontime and it was already boiling…
I shut my eyes because I was supposed to be sleepwalking and then I had to descend that ladder. I don’t know if you noticed the ladder in Terres noires; it’s very irregular. On top of all these difficulties, I still had to traverse a sizable distance. Luc was below on a peak with the cameraman; they weren’t nearby. Since the sound engineer wasn’t there, Luc just called out what I was to do. Jean-Pierre and the assistant director were also absent.
There was only you, Luc, Gonnet, the mayor and his wife?
And Antonietta. She was below, undoubtedly taking notes. It’s odd that that was the only shot where Luc gave me verbal instructions because in all the other takes, the sound engineer was present.
But I thought the film was post-synchronized?
Yes, but not everywhere. Sometimes, the sound is direct… When I arrived just before the slope, it went up a little and there was grass. And Luc said to me: “Lean forward, lean forward more,” and I did a first take and then he had me start all over. I don’t know why. And apparently I hadn’t sufficiently leaned forward, so I leaned forward some more only to discover I couldn’t hold myself back because I was being filmed. I don’t know if you grasp the predicament of an actor who knows he’s being filmed but doesn’t know the limit of the film frame…
What an incredible story!
Luc and Gonnet were on the rocky peak just below but I couldn’t see them.
And so you fell into the air?
Well, it was difficult to hold myself back since I was being filmed and my eyes were shut. I thought there was a small path below. I didn’t realise what there was underneath. I discovered it as I went along.
You mean while you were falling!
Yes, that’s right… It was a vertical drop but there were ledges and then stones also fell on my head… And then I lost consciousness.
How many feet did you fall?
About forty meters [about 131 feet]. At one point, someone said it was a drop of sixty meters [nearly 200 feet]. … In any event, I fell into a garbage heap where there were a lot of bottles. I was cut pretty badly and according to the surgeon, I just barely missed severing the femur artery.
That was a close call! Which hospital were you in?
I was in Digne. I lost my memory for two days… Luc thought I was dead. He kept repeating: “I’m leaving for Argentina!” He was understandably very afraid. He knew he had no insurance for the film. I was stunned by what had happened to me. I was in the middle of shooting a fiction film and I fell into a situation more unlikely than any in the film! And then, worst of all, I felt somehow that I had lost all hope in humanity…
Because you trusted your director.
I trusted him and I couldn’t get over it. By definition, an actor trusts his director. And then during the fall, I thought of a film I’d seen only a few weeks before, Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances . Probably because of the stones. Well, this accident was a very serious thing in my life.
But still you trusted Luc enough to continue shooting a month later.
I never really even considered the alternative. First of all, because it was crucial for me to get on with my life… In one sense, finishing the film was also a way of coming back to life. So when that second accident occurred right before the retrospective opened, it was as if my skeletal hard disk was saying: “Be careful. You already had a serious accident…”
So it was important for me to say something during the round-table, to ask a question, a critical question. For me, it’s a critical question because if Luc wants to make mountain films with his actors, then why does he hire city actors and not actors who are experienced mountain climbers?!
It’s clear that it can be dangerous shooting in that area. During the presentation of Les Naufragés de la D17 (2002) the actress Iliana Lolic mentioned her accident, much less serious than your own, during the shoot.
It seems obvious that for the filmmaker there is a kind of pleasure to put people on the edge of the precipice. There’s an advantage for the director since he’s in charge.
What about Jean-Pierre Léaud—wasn’t he disoriented in this environment?
He had to push himself, as I did. I had to exert myself because acting in a Western is very particular; it’s not something you can just improvise.
In the film, Léaud gives the impression of always overacting. In his interview, Moullet says that everyone was on amphetamines during the shoot and it seems to me that that’s apparent in Léaud’s performance.
Jean-Pierre was the only one on amphetamines but that came out only much later. We didn’t know it during the shoot. He didn’t boast about it on the set. In addition, at lunchtime he often drank the local rosé wine…
What really surprised me, though, was that Luc’s assistant director didn’t do much. He had a small pick-up truck and he’d unload the material every morning and then pack it up in the evening. The rest of the time he was off in a corner smoking joints… I was surprised to see that when I arrived. I was too young to say something. I didn’t know how the film world worked… But I’ve always wondered why Luc hired this guy… I saw that Luc was amused by him… After getting to know Luc better, I understood that he enjoyed playing with taboos, even if he wasn’t interested in drugs. He liked being in control.
You mean he always remains lucid?
That’s it. But at the same time he had this tolerance that I didn’t understand. Acting in a Western evokes a history of acting styles. So, it was a bit reductive to thrust the actors abruptly into this landscape for hikers, that I definitely felt.
At that time, there was also the whole feminist current. The MLF [Mouvement de libération des femmes] distrusted the representation of women on screen and began to pose questions about women’s roles. At the beginning of Billy le Kid, Léaud finds this young woman, but doesn’t pay her the slightest regard; he is caught up in his own hyperactivity…
The presence of the MLF was already so strong in 1969? It only got going in the aftermath of May 1968. (13)
The first signs were there already in 1968.
But among the leaders of May 1968, there wasn’t one woman.
True, but that’s when we realised the score between men and women. So I felt myself in a particular position, I mean in this role where I’m presented as domineering because Luc’s thing is always to present me as a dominatrix, that’s his particular fantasy. That’s what enabled me in the second film to better understand what was at stake, while in the first, I had to endure it, because there was so much to take into account: the setting, my co-star and the fact of acting in a Western… Plus, I also had to find my own acting style in relation to Jean-Pierre. It was not easy to be his partner because of his substantial baggage as an actor, his resourcefulness and his ability to occupy space with a great savoir-faire.
I always ask myself questions; I think before acting. That’s why I like acting. Unfortunately, I haven’t acted as much as I would have liked. Luc gave me a chance. But as my director, he didn’t give me much direction, and at first I was lost. In Billy le Kid, Jean-Pierre and I initially started acting in the spirit of a comic strip but Luc told us that’s not what he wanted. So, we had to find something else. On the one hand, there was this comical side to the film, with almost incompatible elements co-existing within it.
I would describe your acting as much more sober than Jean-Pierre Léaud’s.
I told myself you’re going to act in contrast to Jean-Pierre; you’re going to act literally—it’s the only way of creating something interesting. That’s what I did. But I had an additional difficulty in the beginning because I was supposed to play an idiot.
Yes, in the beginning I am pretending that the Kid discovers me in the sand and I’m supposed to be a nitwit. That was the icing on the cake …
Was the film shot in the chronological order of the narrative?
No, not at all. For example, the scene where I fall in the road was shot two weeks before the scene where I’m sleepwalking.
Moullet was also the film’s producer. He finished Billy le Kid in 1969 and released it in 1970. Did you receive positive reviews in the press?
Well, Luc tended to talk only of Jean-Pierre, undoubtedly for commercial reasons since he was the star. Similarly, Léaud had a real contract while my so-called contract was a joke…
The other evening before the screening of Billy le Kid, Jeanne Balibar was there with Luc to introduce the film. She said that she adored the film and she remarked that your name was missing in the credits for singing the lead song.
That was very nice of her. I’ve been after Luc for forty years about that!
She loves the song and she asked Moullet’s permission to do a new version. It’s in her style. And Luc said yes. In seeing the film again the other evening I noticed that in the opening credits we see Jean-Pierre Léaud’s name on the screen while we see him in profile pulling a mule behind him. Then, we see your name—your stage name “Rachel Kesterber” and what do we see with it? A close up of a donkey!… That made me think of Hitchock’s notorious comment about actors being like cattle…
That pretty much sums up how I was treated. It was the same thing in Anatomie d’un rapport where he never mentioned me as actress. He liked both using me as an attractive prey and projecting his fantasy of the woman as manipulator. Like many filmmakers, he has this predatory side of which I was initially unaware. I was naive and just discovering the film world…
So the film didn’t really serve to launch your career?
Not at all… Billy le Kid remained in French theatres for only two or three weeks…
It seems that the film wasn’t well received in France.
It’s not easy to be the filmmaker and the producer…
Between the release of Billy le Kid in 1970 and the shoot of Anatomie d’un rapport in 1975, were you in regular contact with Luc?
Not really. As a result and contrary to what he says in his book of interviews, he sought me out for the second film but at first I wasn’t very enthusiastic because I hadn’t forgotten about my accident.
Before the screening, he mentioned that he had first asked Anne Wiazemsky to play his wife but she refused. Then he asked Maria Schneider who also said no.
That’s just it: he first offered the role to me.
Yes, to me. It didn’t happen the way he says. He first offered the role to me, but at the time I had just given birth to my daughter. She was a baby, so I hesitated. I read the screenplay and I told him it was a good occasion for him to contact other actresses. When they turned him down, he got back in touch with me…
What made you say yes in the end?
Well, since the shoot took place in an apartment, I knew there wouldn’t be a chance of my falling again!
Did you shoot in Moullet’s apartment?
Yes, most of the film was shot in his Montmartre apartment on the rue Lépic.
I think you’re wonderful in the film.
Once again, what interests me when I read a script is to see what’s at stake. I take a close look. It helped that I was already familiar with Luc’s world. Once, he even lent me his apartment for a few days… I also knew Antonietta and I had more or less an idea of how the couple worked.
Were you friends with Antonietta?
Yes, I was always a little friendly with her even though I would have liked her to protect me a bit more…
Having read the screenplay, I saw where Antonietta could get herself trapped in the sense that she thought she was in an unassailable position as a militant feminist. But I saw where Luc could hog the stage and get all the laughs. …
I imagine that your participation in the film provided a useful distance on the film’s autobiographical element. There’s the scene where you appear surrounded by other women and Antonietta wanted your character as a hardened feminist to be happy and joyous but in your interview with Gérard Courant, you say that that is not how it would be, at least for you.
For an actor, everything is filtered through the body. An actor has a certain experience. She has gone through certain scenes and she wonders why in this scene should she feel euphoric? If I had gone through such experiences, I would perhaps feel more sad than anything else. The screenplay does succeed in expressing something of a woman’s life; the fact that even if a woman doesn’t always have an orgasm or enjoy herself, she can still find herself pregnant.
These are not really pleasant things to live through. A young woman embracing her sexuality discovers a lot of dead ends. And Antonietta captures all that. My role consisted in defending Antonietta’s interests, despite her. Because Luc put her in a position of authority where she was cornered. He was supposed to be a little wacky and she fights all day against that with her pedagogical position and the support of the MLF. She was a little too wrapped up in all that. Undoubtedly, the fact that I had studied philosophy was a help and the fact too that I was happy in my private life…Still, there is something true about how young women are sometimes deeply shocked by a guy who climbs on top of them with the sole idea of penetrating them, as if that were the be-all and end-all. No way can that be an ideal for a young woman, maybe for a guy, but what a woman is looking for is definitely not that. So there’s a misunderstanding on the level of the screenplay.
On the level of acting, I knew that Luc was trying to monopolise the film and that he was putting me in this position that was his own fantasy. He loves making the woman domineering because it gives him the opportunity to make her the butt of his jokes. All the guys will be on his side and then things will get carried away. In addition, we’re going to deal with feminine sexuality, which will be good for a more few laughs and then we’re going to ask the big question or at least pretend to ask Freud’s question: “What does she want?” while taking care that she doesn’t get the upper hand and she remains stuck in a certain dogmatism. As for me, I decided to be ironic and act the clown. Obviously, there weren’t thirty-six different solutions. It was just like in Une Aventure de Billy le Kid. You had to know where you’re going because it was a little risky, obviously… When all is said and done, I still find the screenplay more interesting than that of Billy le Kid, because of the improvisation and because of the ending.
There is the first ending, which is a non-ending, followed by the real conclusion.
That’s right. That’s where I made a contribution, at the end, not in the part under the parasol; it was Antonietta who wanted the parasol scene with the three of us at the table. I also made other contributions to the script.
For example, when you speak of going to London for an abortion?
Yes, the story that I tell comes from my own experience. You can’t invent details like that. Antonietta had the bright idea of leaving blank spaces in the screenplay but she didn’t know how to fill them in.
It was her idea to leave blank spaces for you to fill in?
That’s brilliant! She made room for you in the screenplay.
The subject of the film is abortion. But wasn’t the Simone Veil Law (14) giving French women the right to abortion already in effect in 1975?
It was undoubtedly in process but hadn’t yet gone into effect.
I was also surprised that in the film you use a pregnancy test bought in a pharmacy. I don’t think that pregnancy tests were on the market in the U.S. in 1975. (15)
It must be the puritanical side of the U.S.
Yes, no doubt. Did the shoot take place in the summer?
At the end of July, I believe, and it lasted a month.
The cameraman was Michel Fournier. In Anatomie d’un rapport, there is a passing reference to La Concentration, one of the films Fournier made for Philippe Garrel. Luc proposes that you both go see: “a private showing of two actors enclosed for twenty-four hours in one room.” How did Luc hire Fournier? For me, Fournier comes from another world aesthetically.
I wonder if it wasn’t me who introduced him to Luc.
Because you already knew Michel?
Yes, we did a documentary together on a rock group. It was one of the first
rock sessions at the Olympic-Voltaire, which was directed at the time by Frédéric Mitterrand. That was in 1973; this space no longer exists. Among the rock groups, there were “the Frenchies” with a scrawny fellow named Jean-Marie Poiré who later became well-known for his film Les Visiteurs. (16) Before becoming a filmmaker, he was a guitarist.
One evening, I did a short documentary in the spirit of a “rock film” and Nico, Bulle Ogier and the director Barbet Schroder … were all there. And Michel Fournier was the cameraman. But I was always too busy with all my activities and in the end I never showed him the film we did.
Michel’s style in Anatomie d’un rapport has nothing to do with his work for Garrel, no doubt because Luc Moullet didn’t want a carefully composed image and his budget was very limited. Did Luc really get angry about the zoom at the end of the film?
Yes, and with good reason…
In any case, the film apparently marked the end of Fournier’s career. To my knowledge, he never worked again as a director of photography on a feature film. You know that he died not long ago in December 2008. (17)
To get back to Anatomie d’un rapport, it came out in 1976. Did it do well with the public?
Yes, but Antonietta didn’t like my interpretation. She would have preferred that my acting be more psychological. She found that I wasn’t her, of course, and that I hadn’t sufficiently brought out this young woman’s drama. Personally, I like the fact that the film is less psychological; it makes it more modern.
But with time, I think her opinion must have changed. Last year, there was a screening at the Ursulines cinema for a student group from the Sorbonne… When Antonietta saw the film again, she was dumbfounded by the film’s verisimilitude… As for Luc, I think he always tries to hog all the attention for himself. His narcissicism is sometimes too much.
After acting in these two films by Luc Moullet, did you receive other offers? Were there agents who came to see you?
You know agents here in France don’t make much of an effort. After seeing Billy le Kid, Serge Rousseau of Artmedia told me: “It’s good but you need some theatrical training.” But the theatre was exactly what I couldn’t do, since it was my brother’s domain…
A slightly longer version of this interview was first published in French in the online review Kinok: http://www.kinok.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=392&Itemid=83#_ftn8
Translated and annotated by Sally Shafto
- Luc Moullet: le comique en contrebande (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, April 17 – May 30, 2009). See my article on the retrospective: “Luc Moullet, a Bootleg Filmmaker at the Centre Pompidou,” in Senses of Cinema, no. 51 (2009): http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/09/51/luc-moullet-pompidou.html
- François Ricard, The Lyric Generation: The Life and Times of the Baby-Boomers, trans. Donald Winkler (Toronto: Stoddart, 1994).
- The website “francparler” gives some insight into this odd locution (literally, to take one’s foot) that derives from the time of pirates. The word foot here refers to a unit of measure (a foot equaled approximately 33 cm.) and “prendre son pied” meant to have one’s share of the booty. The expression initially signified getting one’s share monetarily. Later, its usage expanded to include sexual pleasure; at the time, women experiencing sexual pleasure were represented grabbing their foot! See: http://www.francparler.com/syntagme.php?id=72
- A radical left wing newspaper that broke with Communist orthodoxy. She also occasionally wrote elsewhere. Her article on Michael Snow’s The Central Region appeared in issue no. 296 of Cahiers du cinéma.
- Les Scénaristes italiens: cinquante ans d’écriture cinématographique (Paris: Hatier).
- It is available for purchase from www.blaqout.com and features an excellent introduction by Hervé Joubert-Laurencin.
- “Folcoche”: the mother’s nickname [folle (crazy) + cochonne (dirty pig)] in the novel Vipère au poing, published in 1948. Hervé Bazin (1911- 1996) grew up in a devout, bourgeois family.
- More chronicles the excesses of the young generation on Ibiza. Schroeder based the story on one of his friends who died of a heroine overdose.
- Formentera is the smallest of the Balearic archipelago, situated south of Ibiza.
- Her brother’s professional name is “Hugues Quester.” In addition to his work in the theatre, he has acted in more than sixty films, beginning with William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1968). Some of his most notable roles in film are the following: Patrice Chéreau’s La Chair de l’orchidée (Flesh of the Orchid, 1975); Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime, moi non plus (I Love You, I Don’t, 1976); Jeanne Moreau’s L’Adolescente (The Adolescent, 1979); Ettore Scola’s La Nuit de Varennes (The Night of Varennes, 1982); Raul Ruiz’s La Ville des pirates (City of Pirates, 1983); Jacques Demy’s Parking (1985); Eric Rohmer’s Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990). In 2000, he acted in La Chambre obscure (The Dark Room), his sister’s first feature film. See the biography of him in French Wikipedia: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugues_Quester
- Interview that Gérard Courant did in preparation for his documentary on Luc Moullet entitled L’Homme des roubines (The Man of the Badlands, 2001). Ultimately, Courant was unable to use this interview in his film that concentrates on Moullet and his favorite landscape in the Southern Alps.
- Luc Moullet, Notre alpin quotidien: entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (Paris: Centre Pompidou–Capricci Editions, 2009).
- In fact, the MLF is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.
- Simone Veil was named Minister of Health in May 1974 by President Giscard d’Estaing. The Veil Law authorising abortion for French women was promulgated on January 17, 1975. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loi_Veil
- Pregnancy tests became available to American women in 1978. For a full account, see: “A Thin Blue Line: The History of the Pregnancy Test Kit,” http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/thinblueline/timeline.html#1970
- Jean-Michel Poiré’s Les Visiteurs (1993) was one of the most popular comedies in France, just behind Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks, 2008) and La Grande vadrouille (Don’t Look Now: We’re Being Shot at, 1966).
- See the homage to him in issue no. 50 of Senses of Cinema: “In Memoriam: Michel Fournier (1945-2008), Senses of Cinema, n° 50 (2009): http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/09/50/michel-fournier-ewa-rudling.html
Marie-Christine Questerbert Filmography
1969. Buy Me, Sell Me. Production the G.R.E.C. 16 mm. ca. 20 min. Screened at the Festival of Hyères.
1972. Octopus de Natura. Production the G.R.E.C. and Zabriskie. 35 mm. 9 min. black and white. Fiction.
1972. L’Interminable Chevauchée. Production Zabriskie. 35 mm. 10 min. Colour. Theatrically released with Francis Leroy’s La Soupe froide.
1973. Seventies Rock and Roll Men. Production Zabriskie. 16 mm. Colour. 14 min.
1982. Les Filles héréditaires. Directors: Marie-Christine Questerbert and two other French filmmakers and three German filmmakers. Production: ZDF. Directors: Mini-series (fiction) 30 min. episodes. Screened: Festival des Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris; festivals of Mannheim, Brussels and Turin.
1988. Cremonini, Images-Reflets. Production: Zabriskie, the CNAP and Progetto Visivo. 16 mm. Colour. 27 min. Copy purchased by the Musée du Centre Pompidou.
1998. Femme séduisante et anticonformiste. Production: Zabriskie. Video DV. 11 min. Colour. Broadcast on Cinéma-Cinéma.
2000. La Chambre obscure. Production: Parnasse International, Delux and Gan Films. 35 mm. Selected for the Quinzaine des réalisateurs at Cannes and nominated for the Camera d’Or.
2003. Le Jeu de la simulation. HD. Medium-length fiction film inspired by Alan Turing’s The Imitation Game.
1971. Une Aventure de Billy le Kid. Director: Luc Moullet. Principal role.
1972. Last Tango in Paris. Director: Bernardo Bertolucci.
1972. Oh What a Flash! Director: Jean-Michel Barjol.
1976. Anatomie d’un rapport. Director: Luc Moullet. Principal role.
1981. Ma première brasse. Director: Luc Moullet.
1987. La Comédie du travail [The Comedy of Work]. Director: Luc Moullet.
1992. Borderline. Director: Danièle Dubroux.
1994. Grande petite. Director: Sophie Fillières.
1996. Le Journal du séducteur. Director: Danièle Dubroux.
1996. Encore. Director: Pascal Bonitzer.
2007. Prestige de la Mort. Director: Luc Moullet.
2010. Chef d’oeuvre? Director: Luc Moullet. Short for the Centre Pompidou of Metz.