At the 16th International, one of the New Wave’s leading men celebrates his directorial debut and shares stories about working with Chabrol and Rohmer.
Photo: Jean-Claude Brialy, pictured here with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is a Woman, received a tribute at the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival.
By Maria Komodore
“The only thing I know how to say in English is ‘Thank you,’” the French actor-turned-filmmaker Jean-Claude Brialy exclaimed to enthusiastic applause of the crowd at the Palace of Fine Arts after the screening of his directorial debut Eglantine at the 1972 Festival. The celebration also included a Q&A session conducted by Albert Johnson, the Festival program director. “He speaks English perfectly,” Johnson commented on Brialy’s use of an interpreter, “but we are letting him get out of it.” “I love you,” Brialy jokingly responded in English.
“It may seem surprising to you since I’ve been doing films belonging to the New Wave that I would do such a traditional film,” Brialy explained of Eglantine, the story of an 11-year-old boy spending his summer at his grandmother’s estate, outside 1890s Paris. “I had something I wanted to say about love and death and beauty and how they affect children.”
Before turning to directing, Brialy was one of the leading French actors of the 1960s. Having starred in films by Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Eric Rohmer, his name is tied to the New Wave. But the director who propelled Brialy to the top of the acting heap was Claude Chabrol, casting him in lead roles in Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. “Chabrol said once that he gave me these roles because he didn’t know any other actor,” Brialy joked at the Q&A. These films, along with Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, shaped the actor’s persona as a cynical and spoiled yet refined young man whose priorities include shallow pursuits and flirtation with women.
When asked about the differences between working with Chabrol and Rohmer, Brialy responded, “Chabrol is a marvelous director and he gave me my best roles. He is marvelous because he isn’t a director of actors. He is a repressed actor himself. When he outlines a scene he caricatures it . . . and when he is making a dramatic film he gives you the impression that he is making a comedy.” While Brialy considered Chabrol easy-going and fun to work with, he described Rohmer as stern and difficult to approach. “He is quite cold,” Brialy admitted. “When he decided on the girls for Claire’s Knee, he went around different high schools or girls’ schools, and waited for them to come out to find the one he wanted for the role. He had been doing that for a long time and was picked up by the police who were wondering what an elderly man was doing there. . . . He spent four hours at the police station.”
When asked how he coped working with child actors, Brialy said that he was quite lucky to find kids that didn’t need to have their mothers around during the shooting. “The little boy couldn’t stand the little girl,” Brialy recalled. “He would only talk to her when he was acting for the movie. For the love scene they have in the corridor, they decided to rehearse it first and the boy asked me, ‘Do I really have to kiss her on the mouth?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You have to do it. You are in love! It’s like Romeo and Juliet.’ The boy didn’t know who Romeo and Juliet were.”
“Is there anything autobiographical in Eglantine?” a member of the audience asked. “Yes, with the exception that I wasn’t born is the 1800s,” Brialy jested. “It is based on my own remembrance of my childhood. I transposed real facts and I made it more poetic.”
Eglantine, the grandmother of the central character in the film, was portrayed by French actress Valentine Tessier, who had played the title role in Jean Renoir’s 1933 version of Madame Bovary. When asked how he persuaded Tessier to take the role of Eglantine, Brialy explained that he simply “sent her the scenario. She wrote to me that she liked the story very much and that she could really do the grandmother. The only problem that she had was that she had to make herself older. I went to see her and I found her to be a coquette. . . . I said that in the 1800s women of a certain age didn’t have any make-up on. Otherwise they would look like whores. . . . When we both went to see the rushes of the movie Valerie cried. . . .‘I finally see myself for the first time as old lady,’ she said.”
Anticipating criticisms of his sentimental, film Brialy closed his tribute with a preemptive defense of his film. “There are enough critics to talk about the weaknesses [of the film]. I only talk about its strengths. . . . I hope that my sincerity in doing the film will make you forget all the weaknesses. . . . I think if I tried to redo Eglantine I would do it the same way.”