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Known outside France for her roles in film classics like Last Year at Marienbad, Stolen Kisses and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the late actress Delphine Seyrig was, along with Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Anna Karina, one of the great female talents to emerge at the birth of the Nouvelle Vague.
But perhaps unbeknownst to most foreigners was Seyrig’s involvement, beginning in the late 60s, with the French feminist movement, for which she became one of its leading celebrity mouthpieces during the latter part of her career. That part of the actress’s life is revealed with considerable detail in Delphine and Carole (Delphine et Carole, insoumuses), an informative documentary from director Callisto McNulty that explores how Seyrig and filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos joined forces to make a handful of protest movies, using the new medium of video that became available in the 1970s.
With cheeky titles like Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1981) and Maso and Miso Go Boating (1975), the films of “Delphine et Carole” (as they credited themselves) were humorous and provocative agitprop documentaries defending the French feminist cause. Filled with commented TV clips of shameless misogynistic politicians or intellectuals, and interviews with actresses both French and American (Maria Schneider, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Juliet Berto, among others) who experienced sexism in the film industry (sound familiar?), such movies raised awareness in France at a time when women were taking to the streets to protest against inequality or to demand the legalization of abortion.
McNulty juxtaposes clips of the filmmakers’ work, as well as images of the MLF (Mouvement de liberation de femmes) faction they belonged to, with examples of Seyrig’s most memorable movies, including Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (in which she played Deneuve’s mother) and Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses. “I’m an actress, not an intellectual”, the star claims in one interview, while Roussopoulos explains how “Seyrig was nothing like the character” she often played on screen.
Perhaps the apogee of Seyrig’s political and professional activity was her role in Chantal Akerman’s 1975 3-hour-plus masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, which chronicled the quotidian existence of a single mother and sometime prostitute whose life gradually unravels. The film was immediately hailed as a major work in France (it took several years make it to the U.S.), and the documentary includes clips of Seyrig and Akerman doing the rounds of talk shows to promote a “political movie” that would become a milestone in feminist filmmaking.
With her elegant voice and demeanor, Seyrig was often cast as a grande bourgeoise but was very much the opposite in real life. Delphine and Carole reveals how far she took her commitment to the cause of women’s rights, including signing the “Manifesto of the 343” to publicly claim she had an abortion (which was illegal in France until 1975) and letting a doctor perform an elicit abortion on a patient in her apartment, teaching other physicians to learn how to do the procedure.
Enlightening for cinephiles, Franchophiles, feminists or all three together, McNulty’s documentary premiered at the Berlinale Forum and should find plenty of pickups in festivals around the world, with added play on movie channels and in cinematheques. It would be the perfect DVD bonus to a film like Jeanne Dielman, showing how much Seyrig fought for equality both on and off the screen, as well as behind the camera.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Les Films de la Butte, Alva Film, Le Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Carole Roussopopulos
Director: Callisto McNulty
Screenwriters: Callisto McNulty, Alexandra Roussopoulos, Geronimo Roussopoulos
Producers: Sophie de Hijes, Nicolas Lesoult, Britta Rindelaub, Nicole Fernandez Ferrer, Sylvie Cazin
Editor: Josiane Zardoya
Composer: Manu Sauvage
Sales: MPM Premium
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