Thursday, January 01, 2009

In Genuflection to Myriem Roussel

Since compiling my list of Twenty Favorite Actresses for this blog a couple of weeks ago, I have been unexpectedly blindsided by the work of another actress, another European actress, who somehow failed to captivate me on the first pass. I'm speaking of the Moroccan-born Myriem Roussel, best remembered for playing the title role in Jean-Luc Godard's controversial HAIL MARY (Je vous salue, Marie; 1985, pictured above and below). Were I compiling my list today, I'd be tempted to include Roussel -- a daring and talented, even iconoclastic actress, and one of the very few able to retain an aura of mystery while leaving little or nothing of her physicality to the imagination in various body-conscious films.

I've not been able to find out much about Roussel online except for a brief interview by Gerald Peary, which purports to be the only one she ever granted. (Colin MacCabe's book on Godard quotes her, in English, from another interview published in France.) Besides that, the IMDb shows that she has continued to work, for the last decade exclusively in French television. The IMDb lists a December 26, 1962 birthdate for her, while the French website for her current French teleseries DIANE, FEMME FLIC ("Diane, Lady Cop") records her natal day as February 26, 1961. Prior to HAIL MARY, she played small roles in Godard's PASSION (1982) and FIRST NAME: CARMEN (Prénom: Carmen; 1983, in which she's excruciatingly lovely as a swan-necked violinist), but the role that first caught my attention and led me back to these others was Luciano Odorisio's SACRILEGE [La monaca di Monza, 1986], in which she plays the 15th century historical figure of Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva -- the haughty, landowning nun at the nunnery at Monza who publicly offended a neighboring young nobleman, who had his comeuppance by seducing her repeatedly, corrupting her sisters, and undermining her authority in the eyes of the church.

It would be insulting and dismissive to call SACRILEGE a "nunsploitation" film, but that's how it was sold and how I approached it. I sought it out because I've been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming biographical book about my friend, the actress Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, and SACRILEGE was chronologically the first film she made, playing the small but important supporting role of Sister Candida. (Coralina has one important scene in the film that was actually banned from exhibition in Italy, but which is included in the Substance Video DVD -- a fact that amazes her, as she has never seen the footage and considered it lost!) What I didn't expect is that SACRILEGE would turn out to be such an elegantly crafted little gem; it's exquisitely photographed by Romano Albani (Argento's INFERNO) and also features one of Pino Donaggio's most beautiful scores. But what is most lingering about the picture is what lingers about the films Roussel made with Godard: the devotion it pays to her Renaissant loveliness, which somehow looks as much at home in a nun's habit as in the basketball uniform she sports in HAIL MARY. There's a scene in SACRILEGE where Sister Virginia, awakening to her sexuality under the smouldering, corruptive gaze of neighboring nobleman Giampaolo Osio (Alessandro Gassman), looks into a mirror and pulls her habit away from a cascade of long auburn hair. The effect is nearly breathtaking:

What makes this moment so powerful is how, in the space of these few frames, Roussel's expression subtly morphs from timid curiosity to combined arousal and sorrow -- she tears her habit like a hymen -- and then from awe at her mirror's disclosure of her sensuality to a final expression that shows contempt for her vanity as she feels herself empowered by it. It is the moment of Sister Virginia's emergence as a complete, sexual being, body and soul, and by this point in the movie, we feel our heart breaking for her as it also pounds for her. SACRILEGE closes with a freeze-frame of Roussel's face that is too dark to reproduce here, but believe me, it would not look at all out of place hung in the Uffizi Gallery.

Godard (who has cited Roussel as one of the three faces of his cinema, along with his ex-wives Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky) cast her in his films at a point when his work became obsessed with composition and the schism between the static nature of great paintings and the necessity of motion pictures to move. Roussel was the perfect Muse for this era of his filmmaking because her beauty is absolutely in keeping with that of the models who posed for the great paintings of antiquity. Godard underscores this fact in the PETITES NOTES... featurette that accompanies HAIL MARY on the New Yorker Video DVD by dissolving between one of Roussel's screen tests and a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of the Virgin Mary:

I liked PASSION and loved FIRST NAME: CARMEN (which offers a delicious quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: "Beauty is only the start of bearable terror") but must admit, as moved as I was by Roussel's performance, to not fully understanding what Godard was up to in HAIL MARY, a film whose impenetrable qualities were surely a deliberate part (if not a double entendre) of his semi-reverent plan. In my equal parts impressed/befuddled view, I think Peter Rainer of THE LOS ANGELES HERALD EXAMINER summed it up quite capably in his back-cover blurb "Bewildering, beautiful." Suffice to say, I glean as much -- if not more -- profound satisfaction from these two genuinely miraculous frames as I do from anything in HAIL MARY itself.

Coralina tells me that Myriem Roussel kept to herself during the making of SACRILEGE, and didn't get to know her. It was possibly the nature of Roussel's role in that film which made her remoteness from fellow cast members seem the correct stance to maintain, but the Peary interview also describes the actress as "shy." A hypothetical lack of social skills could also explain why Roussel, after breaking off with Godard, has made only a dozen or so features and a few shorts in the past 23 years, while Juliette Binoche -- who had an early supporting role in HAIL MARY, and isn't terribly good in it -- went on to an extraordinary career (not to mention high placement on my Top Twenty Actresses list). Online images of Roussel are rare -- but here's a link to a couple of shots of her from DIANE, FEMME FLIC which show her now as a less ethereal but still handsome woman in early middle age. Somehow a TV cop show isn't a port I would have forecast for this particular actress, but sometimes a so-so career is indicative of a sage preference for private life, security and personal happiness; I hope this has been the case with Godard's Mary. You want someone like this to be happy.
As with too many of my favorite actresses, very little of Myriem Roussel's work is available in English apart from the few titles I've mentioned, but I'm determined to see more of it. I'm particularly curious to see SADNESS AND BEAUTY (Tristesse et beauté, 1985), THE VENUS TRAP (Die Venusfalle, 1988) and THE EYE THAT LIES (L'oeuil qui ment, 1994).

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    You can grab L'oeuil qui ment at KG or using eMule!


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