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Studies in French Cinema Volume 5 Number 1 © 2005 Intellect Ltd

Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sfci.5.1.49/1
Group portrait with a star: Jeanne
Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
Jacqueline Nacache Paris 7-Denis Diderot
Even with a film industry as resistant as France’s to the American invader, its
popular cinema is showing signs of exhaustion in the face of Hollywood competi-
tion whilst auteur cinema is taking a lead. It is in this context that, at the begin-
ning of the 1990s, a new movement emerged full of energy, the jeune cinéma
français which is backed by a funding policy and supported by an auteur cinema
audience that is already well established in France. This movement has proved
propitious for the construction of star images of the ‘vernacular’, which have
developed against the grain of the traditional values of the star system and which
have more of a political than economic cachet. Jeanne Balibar is the most striking
example of this. Her image incorporates, other than a strong affinity with the
intellectual world, paradoxical elements that prevail in her film roles and which
make of her a star in the sense that she is today the woman actor, par excellence,
who best embodies the ambitions and difficulties experienced by this jeune
cinéma français.
She is a beautiful person, has read all the books, the air around her is always
inhabited by an evanescent and enveloping mystery. She is an actor made of
the stuff of dreams - is that what we call a star?
(Darge 2003)
Le jeune cinéma: auteurs, audiences, actors
If stars are becoming increasingly rare in French popular cinema (or at
least less identifiable as such), then this is because in France, as elsewhere
in Europe, the concept of the star can no longer function as a meaning
solely within the confines of the cinema screen. Nowadays, cinema repre-
sents only one sector of the entertainment industry amongst others -
fashion, sport, music, television - from which stars emerge, even the most
ephemeral ones, who can legitimately be studied as social constructions
(take, for example, those fabricated by TV reality shows such as Star
Academy). Not only has cinema lost its status as leader in the leisure indus-
try for the masses, going to the cinema today has become, even in the
most ordinary of circumstances, a marker of social distinction. As the sen-
ators Michel Thiollière and Jack Ralite enquired in their 2002-03 report
‘has the time when cinema was a popular spectacle finally come to an
end?’, leaving us to understand that cinema ‘since the late 1960s’ may
have joined the ‘selective ranks of the other arts’:
Jeanne Balibar
jeune cinéma
auteur cinema
J’ai horreur de l’amour
political commitment
SFC 5 (1) 49–60 © Intellect Ltd 2005
Individuals with high-ranking jobs are big consumers of cinema: more than
76% of those belonging to the higher socio-professional categories [...] have
frequented the cinema at least once in 2001 whereas 60% of those with only
primary education have not gone at all.
(Thiollière and Ralite 2003)
Beyond these statistics which affect globally all films distributed in
France, we must recall that France has one great advantage in the film
industry in that its productivity (on average 200 films per year) allows
the nation to have a leading role in the resistance to American domina-
tion. Even though this status is assailed on all sides - the drop in atten-
dance numbers, the recent conflict about casualization, Canal Plus’s
uncoupling from its former commitment to fund French cinema, the
current free-market climate which is putting the State’s policy of
support for the industry, that dates back to the post-war period, at risk
- what is really under threat in all of this is not (at least not yet) cinema
itself, but the increasingly problematic future of a popular French
Indeed, what emerges clearly from cinema’s loss of influence as a com-
modity of mass leisure and its status as a protected cultural artefact, is the
constant rapprochement in France between the so-called auteur cinema
and mainstream/popular cinema. The boundary between the two has
always been a fluctuating one, but now it has become increasingly perme-
able to the point that any French film can potentially be seen as an auteur
film as opposed to contemporary American cinema which is globally per-
ceived as entertainment, even in its most artistic form. This has occurred
to such an extent that there is a sort of opposition written in stone which
says ‘French cinema boring and intellectual’, versus ‘American cinema
exciting and full of emotion’, as we can see in a revealing scene in De
l’amour/About Love (Faucon, 2001) where a group of young people going
to the cinema decide a priori to exclude any French film because they want
to see a love story.
Without going into detail we can easily see the degree of overlap
between auteur cinema and mainstream/popular cinema. Entertainment
cinema has become increasingly diversified; genre cinema has progres-
sively become the domain of film-makers whose cachet as auteurs is
already established (such as Matthieu Kassovitz, Jacques Audiard, Cedric
Klapisch, or Lucas Belvaux). Popular comedy has been transformed in the
same way as it was in the 1980s, thanks to the café-théâtre generation;
farce, as formerly embodied by Louis de Funès, Gérard Oury, and Pierre
Richard, has evolved into more marginal and off-beat forms: satirical
comedy with a sociological tilt (Tanguy (Chatiliez, 2002)), Canal Plus-style
humour of which Alain Chabat and Djamel Debbouze are exemplary, or
humour in the vein of Taxi which plays on self-referentiality. Light-hearted
boulevard comedy has become a space for personal expression, as seen in
Les Sentiments (Lvovsky, 2003); conversely, consecrated auteurs reach out
to the general public, as we saw recently with François Ozon’s Huit
femmes/Eight Women (2002) and Swimming Pool (2003), or as is evidenced
Jacqueline Nacache
by each new masterpiece by Alain Resnais whose Pas sur la bouche/Not on
the Lips (2003) is a far cry from his early films.
Concomitant with this extension of the auteur’s domain is the fact
that, henceforth, there is, in terms of consumers of this auteur cinema, a
more singular and more solidly constituted audience than in the past. As
Jean-Pierre Esquénazi reminds us, consumers of elite culture are, by defin-
ition, both more homogenous and more easily identifiable (Esquénazi
2003: 3). In this context, the French auteur cinema’s audience has the
benefit of a long history, going back to the New Wave. In terms of political
culture it is aligned with the Left, a position maintained (not without gaps)
during the period 1981-2002 which witnessed the discontinuous but
regular presence of a government of the Left. It can be located in symbolic
communities, whether these be constituted by readers of Le Monde or
Libération, or by viewers of the Franco-German cultural television channel
Arte. This ‘auteur cinema turned genre cinema’ (Serceau 1999: 39) has
established a new cinephilic practice which no longer concerns the former
audience of the Cinémathèque Française (predominantly masculine and
across all classes), but reaches cultivated middle classes of both sexes who
enjoy auteur cinema as part of a more global consumption practice which
includes literature, theatre and musical concerts. As opposed to a former,
classical cinephilia, these audiences are well aware of how their cultural
practices define them and are more readily committed to them; it is no
longer a matter of spectators demonstrating the ‘cultural goodwill’ of
which Bourdieu speaks (Bourdieu 1979: 365), but of a consciously chosen
cultural commitment. And, over the past decade, cinematic production
has fed this commitment insofar as it has allowed the intellectual French
middle classes to express clearly their hostility to American cultural impe-
rialism and, concomitantly, their attachment to the famous French cul-
tural exception (Sojcher 1996).
The blurring of boundaries between auteur and popular cinema, the
institutionalization of a public that is more aware of the social and cultural
import of their practices - these are two reasons which can in part explain
not just the consolidation of auteur cinema in France, but its most
remarkable departure, namely the so-called jeune cinéma français which
dates from the early 1990s. For nearly fifteen years now, a wave of first-
time films has been shaking up France’s cinematic landscape to such a
remarkable extent that several critics have been speaking in terms of the
‘New New Wave’ (Nezick 1996: 37). Far from being an overnight wonder,
this phenomenon has persisted and asserted itself. If nowadays it seems to
be running out of steam this is due to the economic reasons we have
already mentioned, and to the limited renewal of the generation of young
auteurs. However, with hindsight, there can be no denying the existence of
this movement whose artistic output has been uneven, but whose undeni-
able vitality - assisted by favourable financing and a faithful and curious
public - has contributed enormously to the image of French cinema.
Above all what needs stressing here is that this movement has equally
contributed to a muddling of the star image, even a significant slippage in
the definition of this image. Indeed, as early as its recognition in the spe-
cialized press (Jousse et al. 1993), this young cinema has shown how
Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
remarkable it is, not just because of the film-makers it has produced, but
the generation of excellent actors it has brought to the fore: Valeria Bruni-
Tedeschi, Karin Viard, Sandrine Kiberlain, Sylvie Testud, Denis Podalydès,
Jean-Pierre Darroussin and others have become familiar faces on the
screen, and some have gained a reputation which has allowed them to go
beyond the confines of the jeune cinéma.
Has the strong presence of jeune cinéma on French screens allowed for
the emergence of what we could call stars, however? There are two
reasons to say no. On the one hand, this new cinema, just like the New
Wave before it, but in an even more self-conscious way, is collective by
nature, working as a group, which rather excludes the possibility of the
superb solitude of the star. On the other hand, these new actors do not
have the same economic cachet that the Depardieus, Deneuves, Béarts and
Bonnaires possessed and continue to command. However, as Ginette
Vincendeau has pointed out, the criteria for using the term ‘star’ where
French and European cinema is concerned differs from the Hollywood
norm in that it follows ‘a rough division between the box-office on the one
hand and cinephilia on the other’ (Vincendeau 2000: 24). Notably,
Vincendeau has used this criterion to study Jeanne Moreau as a star, par
excellence, of auteur cinema. In this regard Vincendeau has made it possi-
ble for us to talk in terms of ‘stars’ without having to refer constantly to
their economic value. In any case, auteur cinema and its public have pro-
duced stars who, whilst they neither invade the sociocultural field nor
function as myths, but can walk about in the city streets without being
accosted by passers-by, are nonetheless complex ‘structured polysemies’
such as those described by Richard Dyer and his followers.
But, as far as the jeune cinéma of the 1990s is concerned, it is not just a
simple case of reactivating the already well-established concept of the
auteur cinema star (see Sellier 2001). For this new cinema, despite the
convenient parallels, is not the New Wave. It is not a revolt against an
institutionalized and crusty old cinema, but rather a remarkable conjunc-
tion of circumstances: the ideological and political climate, the economic
means of production, the motivation of certain film producers (committed
to an art cinema and a cinema of protest), the expectations of critics who
were ready (by the end of the 1980s) to welcome (if not appreciate) a small
revolution within the confines of their national cinema, and, finally, as we
have already mentioned, the coming of age of a potential audience.
Arguably something like this kind of conjunction of circumstances is
necessary for stars to emerge as part of a clear system. There needs to be a
harmonious interface between cinema and society to enable the construc-
tion of a ‘star image’ from the various texts and intertexts that basically
create them (be it promotional or publicity material, critical reviews, or
the film industry journals). The number of films produced also has to be of
sufficient number that the star persona can emerge, and that it can facili-
tate a diversity of promotional strategies. Finally, the symbolic impact of
the cinema in the sociocultural field has to be sufficiently strong, critical
reception sufficiently alive and responsive, and the coverage afforded
cinema in the media be adequate. If all this falls into place, then star
studies as a methodology can be adapted to analyse actors working in a
Jacqueline Nacache
small and liminal terrain such as the French jeune cinéma. Viewed in this
way, these actors become ‘vernacular’ stars (as opposed to national or
international stars, just as vernacular languages are usually opposed to
national or universal languages), even though their star image is con-
structed in very much the same way as those produced by the star system
in dominant cinemas.
We could even go so far as to say that, if the concept of ‘star’ has theo-
retical value in the field of French cinema studies, it is easier to see how it
could be applied within the context of the jeune cinéma than in the popular
cinema where it appears to be more difficult to use. Texts that presently
surround popular French stars are lacklustre, full of holes, rather superfi-
cial, whereas the jeune cinéma, for its part, generates star texts that are far
more coherent because they are based in the complete reversal of earlier
Of course, this reversal does not necessarily produce spectacular
results: not all the jeune cinéma actors are stars. Moreover, we note that
especially where female actors are concerned, there is a redefinition and
reconceptualization of the star image which is made up of a mixture of
former elements (such as those developed in relation to Jeanne Moreau
and Anna Karina) and new ones, thanks to the particular configuration of
French society in the 2000s. When this combination of elements is
embodied at its most extreme it produces a social phenomenon, which in
terms of magnitude may not be that grandiose, but which nonetheless
conforms in all ways to the concept of a star image. And it is precisely this
phenomenon that I would like to consider in the following case study of
Jeanne Balibar.
A star of the jeune cinéma: the case of Jeanne Balibar
Jeanne Balibar epitomizes many of the traits associated with the 1980s’
generation of actors, and as such is at the core of this cohort. Born in
1968, she began her film career in 1992 with Arnaud Despleschin’s La
Sentinelle/The Sentinel, and, henceforth, has never strayed very far away
from the most exacting of auteur cinema: Despleschin again with
Comment je me suis disputé ... ma vie sexuelle/My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into
an Argument (1996), Jacques Rivette (Va savoir/Va Savoir (Who Knows?)
(2002)), Olivier Assayas (Fin août, début septembre/Late August, Early
September (1999); Clean (2004)), Jean-Claude Biette (Trois ponts sur la
rivière/Three Bridges on the River (1999); Saltimbank (2003)), Raoul Ruiz (La
Comédie de l’innocence/Comedy of Innocence (2000)). Nor do first-time films
scare her; she seems rather to be attracted to the adventure they might
bring. This is the case, for example, with those of Mathieu Almaric, her
one-time partner and also an actor (Mange ta soupe/Eat Your Soup (1997);
Le Stade de Wimbledon/Wimbledon Stage (2001)), or Christophe Honoré, a
former writer and critic (Dix-sept fois Cécile Cassard/Seventeen Times Cecile
Cassard (2002)).
Balibar’s refusal to appear in mainstream cinema contributes in an
ideal way to the status of absence/presence that is so readily linked with
auteur cinema stars. Indeed, it gives her film image that elusive quality
which was formerly associated with that other ‘Jeanne’ (Moreau, with
Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
whom she is so readily compared, as is evidenced by a website dedicated to
the two actors). But these high standards, coupled with an ambiguity
poised between gravity and humour, do not prevent her from taking on
lighter roles (Dieu seul me voit/Only God Sees Me (Podalydès, 1998); or
Jeanne Labrune’s fantasy Ça ira mieux demain/Tomorrow’s Another Day
(2000)); and when she gets close to genre cinema, it is only to play sec-
ondary roles, even though her persona radiates symbolically, whether it is
the philosophical/historical fresco Sade (Jacquot, 2000), or the neo-thriller
Une affaire privée/A Private Affair (Nicloux, 2002).
However, these films are not the whole story: small in number, seen by
a restricted audience, they represent an important, but not exclusive,
aspect of her output. Balibar’s image - built up, during the 2000s, along
the lines described above that are typical of the jeune cinéma - is known by
a wider public than that of her film-going audience, and is buttressed by
the persona that has arisen out of her different spheres of activity which
have been covered by a press that is artistically and politically aligned with
her own positions.
First there is her exotic-sounding surname. As Balibar explains, it is a
Jewish-Ukrainian name (Palmiéri 2001). It is both unusual and famous. It
belongs to a family of renowned intellectuals and scientists: her father is
the philosopher Etienne Balibar and her mother Françoise Balibar, a well-
known physicist. This remarkable family environment allows Jeanne to
satisfy an essential criterion in terms of stardom. If traditional star images
are organized around the principles of success, consumption and seduc-
tion, then the women actors of the jeune cinéma are, conversely, recogniz-
able through the multiple signs that point to their intellectual maturity.
Although this does not necessarily mean that they have a university
degree, it does mean that they can talk intelligently about their craft - this
explains why they contribute so heavily to the construction of their own
image via interviews (which in themselves act as vital evidence of their
competence) - and this is further confirmed by their (more or less) close
association with the arts and intellectual life.
What distinguishes Jeanne Balibar from her other contemporaries,
such as Sophie Marceau (born 1966) or Sandrine Bonnaire (born 1967),
is that, although she was an avid spectator, she was not thrown into the
world of cinema in her early youth. Her aura of wisdom and maturity was
first achieved through her experience outside of cinema and most notably
through her student life; she was a former student at the prestigious Lycée
Henri IV, then at the École Normale Supérieure, and she also took the
exams for the Paris Conservatoire. This past has left its mark, first in her
theatre career (she has played Kleist, Chekov, and Claudel). Several other
aspects of her life confirm this artistic and intellectual commitment. A
member of the association ‘Textes et voix’, she gives readings of literary
and philosophical texts. Invited in March 2003 to a conference on
Maurice Blanchot, she gave readings from this author in an afternoon
session dedicated to the theme of the voice in Blanchot’s work. She has
taken part in a documentary on Marguerite Duras (Marguerite telle qu’en
elle-même (Auvray, 2002)), done a voice-over in a documentary on Kafka,
been a member of the jury at the Venice festival in 2001. There are many
Jacqueline Nacache
factors that create the intellectual radiance that surrounds Balibar’s
persona - not least of which is that at her very young age she has already
been ‘embodied’ on screen by one of her peers from the jeune cinéma (who
also has a prestigious theatrical career), Anne Alvaro in Mathieu
Amalric’s TV film La Chose publique/Public Affairs (2003) where he relates,
in fictional form, the story of the break-up of his relationship with Balibar.
This aura could explain why, in 2002, the image of this young star
illustrates the cover of the first academic book dedicated to a study of the
jeune cinéma (Prédal 2002). The portrait is in profile, in very tight close-up,
her eyes wide open and concentrating, she is holding the stem of her
glasses in her mouth, which makes her look more student-like than
actorly. Jeanne thus embodies a certain idea of this cinema: artist, outsider,
modern. Whether she likes it or not, she has been given the role of intel-
lectual muse. The Cahiers du Cinéma are quite right to see her as one of
their icons (see the cover of No. 582), and to underline the breadth of her
work. Everything that she touches is marked by this image that combines
talent, rigour, and risk-taking - such as her recent record with Rodolphe
Burger (her singing voice incidentally recalling Moreau’s), or her casting
in Saltimbank, Jean-Claude Biette’s last film before he died.
The second defining criterion is authenticity in all its forms, which is a
guiding principle for all women actors of the jeune cinéma. Wanting to be
perceived as both true actors and actors of the truth, they reject any atti-
tude that could be read as artificial or capricious. Modesty rules, therefore.
Jeanne’s goes as far as humility. She responds with devastating simplicity
to the flattery of the journalists, starting with a refusal to accept the label
of intellectual actor that they try to stick on her. Not only does she not see
herself as an ‘intellectual’, she describes herself as ‘completely lacking in
culture’, and minimizes all her successes, including the fact that she
passed the prestigious entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure.
She modestly minimizes her fame thus: ‘It’s only in the Latin Quarter that
I am recognized’ (Roig 2001).
As far as her performance style is concerned, she is distinct from her
contemporaries who (as opposed to Adjani and Marceau in the 1980s)
have returned to a quasi-monastic view of acting where working at the
role is paramount. On the contrary, Balibar has adopted the view, like Asta
Nielsen, Dietrich and Garbo before her, that to act in cinema means being
satisfied with being in front of the camera and bringing nothing of oneself
into the frame: ‘There is nothing to learn, in my view. Just letting oneself
be seen by another at least once in one’s life’ (Palmiéri 2001). True to this
logic, she claims that she prepares nothing for her theatre roles and
arrives ‘hands in pockets, without knowing my part and without having
thought about it beforehand’ (Coissy 2003). Her unquestionable innate
natural talent and her innocence counter the occasional irritation caused
by her studied diction and her stiffness; the reward is a success she never
seeks out.
This taste for the real is also a taste for risk, which means going on
stage and testing oneself on the boards (as do Sylvie Testud and
Dominique Blanc). Of all the women actors of this generation, Balibar is
the one who most splits her time between theatre and cinema. And her
Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
theatrical successes rebound on her cinematic appearances in which there
is an implicit intellectual and creative relationship with the film director.
Speaking about the making of Va savoir, in which she was not cast origi-
nally, she stresses the way in which she communicated with Jacques
Rivette almost without words, and how her character Camille emanated
from the few directives he gave her and the extreme attention she paid to
his slightest reaction. Indeed, whether the director speaks or not seems to
have little importance: ‘It is the materiality of the voice or silence that directs
not the content’ (Frodon and Lalanne 2003). The ease with which Balibar
can decipher the director’s intentions could appear to contradict the
modesty mentioned earlier. But in fact, this contradiction makes it clear that
we are dealing here with a star construction in that it is the very nature of
stardom to be a cluster of contradictions that are assimilated and smoothed
over into a coherent whole that overrides the internal dissonances.
Her taste for authenticity, finally, resides in her stubborn, even rebellious
attitude towards institutions and big-budget productions. Some actors give
in sometimes, tempted by the big budget. But not Balibar, who admits to a
strong liking for undertakings that are ‘non-mainstream, artisanal, and not
fully integrated into a repertoire’ (Diatkine 1999); although she got into
the Comédie Française, she fled from it after four years, as if freeing herself
from an iron collar, and at the same time she left the academic context of
her studies. However, she only values this freedom within her work, which
in itself is fairly constraining: ‘It’s within the constraints of the scene or the
take that I feel the most free’ (Diatkine 1999). This can extend as far as
making her a quasi-martyr when dealing with extremely demanding film-
makers, such as Arnaud Desplechin, with whom she has said she had her
‘baptism by fire - a minimum of thirty-five takes’ (Palmiéri 2001).
This authenticity and sense of freedom which can go as far as a delib-
erate sacrifice for the sake of art and credibility to another aspect of
Balibar’s personality: the good citizen, which she embodies even more so
than her peers. Independent, politically and socially mature, active, the
jeune cinéma actors willingly are very public in their political commitment,
without fear of damaging their image, it has to be said. Indeed, their politi-
cization has become an everyday reality, at least in the recent past.
Emmanuelle Béart’s story is a case in point. In 1996, she stopped advertis-
ing for Christian Dior after giving her support to the Church of Saint
Bernard’s sans-papiers (illegal immigrants). And in this early twenty-first
century, media communication is such that the political commitment of
actors is no longer startling news. In fact they find it difficult not to speak
out on the political life of their country, especially in times of crisis.
For her part, Balibar joined the action in defence of the sans-papiers in
1997 when she become part of the artists’ movement against the Debré
laws; she agreed to speak about herself to the communist daily L’Humanité,
but only on political subjects and the defence of the sans-papiers (Fleury
1998). After having been the ‘godmother’ of a deportee, she signed, on 23
May 2003, the manifesto of the movement, which ends with the follow-
ing: ‘We declare that we have helped strangers whose situation is irregu-
lar. [...] If solidarity is a crime, I demand to be prosecuted for this crime’
(GISTI 2003).
Jacqueline Nacache
Of course, neither she nor any other signatory was prosecuted, and the
fact that it was clear that they would not be made their gesture ineffectual,
to say the least. To take another example, let us recall that the support
Balibar and many other actors gave to the cause against the casualization
of the profession during 2003 only produced meagre results. However, it
was this occasion, in which she was deeply involved, that produced her
most fiery and most ostensibly political discourse, as the following inter-
view makes clear:
My view is that since the liberation there has been a cultural policy in place
that is absolutely sacrosanct and which this government is currently smash-
ing to pieces. They are pretending to count as unemployment benefit what is
in fact an agreement arrived at between the Ministry of Culture and the
Ministry of Labour to subsidize French cultural life via the UNEDIC. The
bosses could give a shit about culture. Besides which they are perfectly happy
to close off any means of protest to those who won’t comply. Because domi-
nant capitalist ideology never leaves anything to chance and consistently
looks for ways to make conformist entertainment even more powerful. This
is both reactionary, but completely within the logic of exploitation of the
labour forces by the bosses, and deathly for France’s cultural life. So it is
normal that we should react.
(Coissy 2003)
But this reaction had little effect. A star’s political engagement is limited
because of their inability to be truly at the heart of the struggle; their
untouchable nature protects their actions either from causing them any
real trouble or from having any lasting effect.
No matter. What does count in terms of Balibar’s image is not the way
in which her persona impacts upon the world, but her weightlessness, her
ingenuous grace in a variety of contexts, her enormous talent and com-
mitment to a high ideal of culture. Taking her filmography as a whole,
only a small number of films allow us to distinguish a clear image. With
Balibar, it is far more a case of a mise-en-scène of evanescence, of fleeting-
ness without any clearly delineated characteristics, but for two dominant
traits: intellectualism, and psychological instability.
The first of these traits comes through with characters who are drawn
along the lines of Balibar’s own personality; this character lives in a uni-
versity environment (Comment je me suis disputé ... ma vie sexuelle), is an
actor (Va savoir), musician (Toutes ces belles promesses/All the Fine Promises
(Civeyrac, 2003)), is politically experienced and worldly-wise - she meets
Fidel Castro in Dieu seul me voit/Only God Sees Me (Podalydès, 1998). In all
these instances, she is articulate and cultivated, and this allows her to take
on board quite stylized dialogue, even deliver monologues with a literary
tone, thus bringing out a hoarseness in her voice which accentuates its
theatrical quality.
As for the psychological instability, this is less perceptible at first, and
yet it is the more striking aspect of her persona. There is a ghost in Balibar,
a madness that haunts her, an eeriness that sticks to her translucent thin-
ness. Hers is a face that comes from the past. Her gestures are agitated; she
Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
is the abandoned woman inhabited by nostalgia for lost coupledom (Fin
août, début septembre), a nervous body riddled with obsessions (Ça ira mieux
demain), a troubling mixture of lucidity and madness in La Comédie de l’in-
nocence, where Isabelle Huppert (herself often cast in unstable roles) strug-
gles against the Machiavellian alter ego played by Balibar. The television
film Toutes ces belles promesses focuses on Jeanne’s character, and fore-
grounds her oversensitive and tormented character: her skinny bony
limbs, her ability to experience devastating love from one moment to the
next, her gift of extrasensory perception which allows her to relive
amongst the dead, in the core of her own past. These effects are reinforced
by the presence of Bulle Ogier, who formerly held in auteur cinema a posi-
tion not dissimilar to that occupied today by Balibar.
J’ai horreur de l’amour: a case study
J’ai horreur de l’amour/I Can’t Stand Love (Ferreira Barbosa, 1997) is a
Balibar film par excellence, insofar as it works overtly to combine the
image held in the public domain of the professionally competent actor
with the fragility which is gradually emerging from her roles. A study in
wholeness as much as in disintegration, the scenario is fully focused on
the character played by Balibar, and to which she brings her own foibles: a
mixture of stubbornness and weakness, a precariously balanced body that
is on the verge of collapse, a seeming competence which eventually gives
in to social pressures.
The film’s bitter humour has meant that very few critics seem aware of
its deep pessimism. What is admired, as for example by Gérard Lefort when
the film came out, is the fact that the film is not a fiction, but a documen-
tary on Balibar herself:
Finally, very significantly, La Balibar. It is a privilege reserved for the greatest
actors that their name be equal to that of the director. Men Prefer Blondes is
just as much a Marilyn film as it is Hawks’s. Here, Jeanne Balibar, with her
extraordinary presence in the role of Annie is in this sort of league. Right at
its core it is a Balibar film with its spiritual scepticism and struggles with the
body which she plays without making herself a hostage to the performance.
(Lefort 1997)
A star is born. The article, by referring to Monroe, by using the direct
article ‘la’ used only for divas or demimondaines, consecrates the fusion
between the role and the actor. This emphasizes that the film is about the
defeat of a woman. Annie Simonin aspires, on the one hand, to engage
fully with her humanitarian commitment and, on the other, to fulfil her
role as a doctor to the highest of her ideals. However, these goals are
incompatible with her private life. The film describes in minute detail how
she is finally destroyed by three men who manage to invade her personal
and public space. Costa (Bruno Lochet) is an ex-convict she hires as her
secretary; Laurent (Laurent Lucas) is an AIDS sufferer she hesitates about
seeing through to his death, and Richard (Jean-Quentin Châtelain) is a
persecuting hypochondriac whose constant harassment eventually drives
her mad.
Jacqueline Nacache
Because Balibar does vacillate, such is her public destiny. Her reed-like
figure makes her bend this way and that, sometimes to the point of break-
ing. She wavers between the sexes. She is an outrageously feminine
seducer, yet her voice is deep and her body androgynous. She vacillates
between strength, which allows her to be on stage for the eight hours of Le
Soulier de satin, and a delicate, almost depressive weakness, which she
embodies in most of her film roles; between the strength of her political
convictions and the dreamy uncertainties of her characters; between the
naturalness with which she describes her relationship with the theatre
arts, and the rejection of all naturalness in her work as an actor.
If Balibar emerges as a pure icon of the auteur cinema of the 1990s, it
is because her paradoxical image evokes better than any other the artistic
insecurity of a movement such as the French jeune cinéma. It is a move-
ment, as I have said elsewhere, that is caught in a web of contradictions
(Nacache 2003): between television and cinema; supported by a culturally
engaged public and neglected by the rest; suffering from the paternalistic
weight of previous filmic generations; wishing itself to be free and rebel-
lious, but obliged to acknowledge its subsidized nature; wanting to be
independent and yet, despite itself, finding itself obliged to represent a nec-
essary resistance to the American invader. Hardly surprising then that this
‘difficulty in being’ should find its expression in a star whose very discre-
tion is itself spectacular, whose tormented and fleeing image constructs
physical and psychological frailty into the ultimate sign of modernity. No
surprise either that Balibar exemplifies a model that is not only just ‘vernac-
ular’, but which no other woman, even in the tiny circle in which she is
known, could even begin to imitate. For this new definition of the film star,
purely symbolic and ‘auratic’, has nothing of the makeshift about it. Indeed,
it is the embodiment of the unique blend of vigour and precariousness that
has characterized, for nearly fifteen years now, the jeune cinéma français.
Translated by Susan Hayward
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Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French ‘jeune’ cinema
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Nacache, J. (2005), ‘Group portrait with a star: Jeanne Balibar and French “jeune”
cinema’, Studies in French Cinema 5: 1, pp. 49–60, doi: 10.1386/sfci.5.1.49/1
Contributor Details
Jacqueline Nacache is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Paris 7-Denis Diderot. Her
work focuses primarily on classical Hollywood cinema. She is the author of
Lubitsch (Edilig, 1987), Le Film hollywoodien classique (Nathan, 1995) and
Hollywood, l’ellipse et l’infilmé (L’Harmattan, 2001). But it is as a film critic (for
Cinéma, La Revue du Cinéma, Bref, Positif) that she has broadened her interests to
encompass French cinema as well. Presently she is working on the function of the
actor. In this context she has published L’Acteur de cinéma (Nathan-Université,
2003). Contact: Jacqueline Nacache Paris 7-Denis Diderot 2 Place Jussieu 75251
Paris Cedex 05. E-mail:
Jacqueline Nacache