Friday, May 14, 2010

Actress Files: Marie-Christine Barrault

Marie-Christine Barrault, Cousin cousine
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1976 Best Actress Oscar to Faye Dunaway for Network)

Why I Waited: No real reason, save that no one in earshot has ever professed any particular feeling for the film.

The Performance: 1976 is one of those delicious years when you practically want to hug AMPAS for its nominations, if not for all of the eventual winners. All the President's Men, Network, and Taxi Driver are a pretty thoroughbred trio by the standards of what one can reasonably expect Oscar to recognize, and as I admitted in my recent write-up of Talia Shire, I have plenty of time for Rocky. I haven't seen the fifth Best Picture nominee, Bound for Glory, but the writing, acting, and directing nominees make room for Bergman, Fellini, and Lina Wertmüller, the first woman nominated for Best Director (and a personal favorite on the strength of Swept Away). Harlan County, U.S.A., the winner of the documentary Oscar belongs on anyone's list of the best, most important films America has ever produced, the cult-appeal pop craftsmanship of Carrie, The Omen, Obsession, and The Outlaw Josey Wales made solid runs at most of the right categories, and an African-sponsored film won the Foreign Film Oscar (which has only happened one other time). Studio bombast like A Star Is Born and Voyage of the Damned, which is just the kind of stuff that would have gummed up the works even a few years before, was almost entirely relegated below the fold.

That's a lot to appreciate, even with the caveat that not every single fissure in Oscar's habitual xenophobia and his fondness for gaseous homegrown drama necessarily spawns an unimpeachable nomination. On that score, the Gallic trifle Cousin cousine clearly tickled the voters, placing in the Foreign Film and Actress races and somehow pipping Travis Bickle and his urban inferno for a Best Original Screenplay nod. Focusing, as you knew I would, on Barrault's nomination, she is fetching in a perfectly adequate, low-wattage way as Marthe, a woman who comes to realize with an in-law played by Victor Lanoux that their spouses are having an affair, so they decide to embark on their own teasing semblance of a liaison, just to needle their straying partners. No points for guessing that all that conspiratorial teasing, sun-dappled recreation, and poolside confiding lead to an earnest and fervently consummated relationship. Not for writer-director Jean Charles Tacchella the swooning, epicurean withholding of In the Mood for Love.

Compared to the Wong, there's also a seeming absence in Cousin cousine of cultural resonance, though I suppose the comically increasing candor of Marthe and Ludovic's cheating puts a gleeful burr in the saddle of Catholic middle-class values. We're hardly talking Buñuel, though in a different, diluted sense I suppose we are, for by the conclusion of Cousin cousine, as the rest of the sprawling ensemble convene to celebrate Christmas (including the initially wayward spouses, long since detached from each other), Marthe and Ludovic continue their boisterous lovemaking for hours in the next room, behind a proudly locked door. Their togetherness entails, in the closing scenes, a blithely farcical disregard for partners, parents, and children, some of whom are meanwhile getting tangled up in their own absurd scenarios; Marthe's mother, for example, volunteers to get sawed in half by a magician and then gets stranded in the box when everyone loses interest in the stunt, preoccupied as they are by the lovers' merry affair. There's a twinge here, at least by the finale, of Tacchella attempting a light version of the living-room surrealism of Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, with the salubrious commercial concessions that the whole film is so gentle and airy that it's possible not to notice the gradual stylistic exaggerations, and that Cousin cousine contentedly inhabits a bourgeois aesthetic and sensibility even as it cheerfully sends them up.

To extend such benefit of the doubt that Cousin cousine has even modest ambitions as anything but a featherweight divertissement is to admit that Barrault and Lanoux make a more than justifiable choice, providing the placidly appealing vessels by which Tacchella eventually ribs their characters as hard as anyone else's. Marthe and Ludovic's grinning and selfish enjoyment of each other is as brazen by the conclusion as Marthe's husband's hypocrisy about his own copious cheating or Ludo's wife's childlike dizziness (nicely played by Marie-France Pisier). I had assumed Cousin cousine would continue idealizing its two protagonists while making uncaustic fun of everybody else—which is an easy mistake to make given all the lustrous backlighting and front-lighting that Barrault enjoys, and Tacchella's obvious pleasure in her fine-boned loveliness and Ladoux's stout, genial, French virility. I don't think the subtle mockery of their own choices would have the same tang if they were playing the characters at a higher pitch, since I expect that approach would either lead to more active lunges at audience adoration (which this film doesn't need) or earlier signals of these characters' imperfections (which might just make the whole picture seem meaner-spirited or more unnecessary than it already does). Fundamental likability and light-touch acting are often the best way to go in a vehicle like this one, and Barrault makes Marthe sympathetic and appealing without indulging any "victim" postures or over-selling the character beyond her seeming ordinariness.

But once again, we find ourselves in the company of a nominated 70s actress whose major virtue onscreen involves a breezy, smiling equanimity that desists from making big waves, or pushing the movie into deeper waters. That this plays as a more than justifiable approach to Cousin cousine does not by extension qualify it as great acting. An actor can certainly insert herself into light, tranquil material without rejecting complexity or the intimations of deeper layers. I haven't seen Streisand in A Star Is Born or Glenda Jackson in The Incredible Sarah (a film shortlisted in other categories); they may not be great turns and may even have played as default choices if they had been nominated, given Streisand's sheer, For the Boys-style bid for adulation and Jackson's almost axiomatic appearance in this category throughout the first half of the 70s. But both performers, even when they're off, have a penchant for pushing, slanting, and probing away at their characters as written, and I suppose I'm more excited when Oscar errs on the side of inquisitive, risk-taking characterization than when he honors such serene handling of a low-impact part. Feel free to chime in with your own stab at who might have merited Barrault's spot in the race. It's so refreshing to see a pick hailing from beyond Hollywood's borders and she's so amiable in the movie that she's an odd cause to root against, but it's at least as odd to see her recognized in this way when so many era-defining French or Francophone actresses remain unlaureled on these shores (Isabelle Huppert, Nathalie Baye, Delphine Seyrig, Sandrine Bonnaire, Charlotte Rampling, Emmanuelle Devos). There must have been someone in contention in 1976 who could have risen closer to the high bar set by the other four nominees, with more to show for herself than an agreeable unfussiness and a very pretty face.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 25 to Go

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Blogger Michael Shetina said...

"There must have been someone in contention in 1976 who could have risen closer to the high bar set by the other four nominees."

Nick, if you find one, let us know. The only other lead females I admire - having seen and enjoyed all the nominees but Barrault - are Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday and uh... Barabra Harris in Family Plot. Solid work, but hardly on the level of her Nashville and Harry Kellerman work. '76 is like '74. A superb field of actresses (although '74's lineup is better), but when you look for people who could have taken their places, you come up empty.

1:05 AM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I submit the aforementioned Streisand for consideration over Christine-Barrault, but the other four nominees dominate entirely here. There's nobody throughout the rest of their year who can reach up to them. A generally strong year for the category.

4:00 AM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

if i live to be 400 years old and get to see all the movies i'll ever hope to see, i'll give you somebody.

there must be somebody. They're probably just hiding in a genre film or something that no one thinks of as "award worthy" even though it might well be.

you know how that story goes.

12:16 PM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

For me the '76 contest should have boiled down to a three-way face-off between Dunaway, Spaceck and Genevieve Bujold in "Obsession".
She and Cliff Robertson worked so beautifully together, creating a tender, pulsating chemistry. Some dismissed the film as ersatz Hitchcock but I thought it worked just fine. And the two stars really brought out the best in one another (with help, of course, from Brian De Palma and Bernard Herrmann). End result: two career-capping performances. I'd have given them both Oscars.

12:36 PM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

I'd like to stick up for one of Michael Shetina's suggestions - Barbara Harris in 'Family Plot'. A really funny, quicksilver performance that marries broad comedy to an interesting, intelligent watchfulness. Admittedly, she gets a bit strained in the really long 'out-of-control car' sequence, but otherwise I think its a magic, film-carrying turn. Good enough for the fifth spot, I reckon.

4:13 PM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Clearly, we're all more interested in Barrault alternatives than in Barrault (though, just to be clear, if you do rent Cousin cousine, I'm betting I won't be alone in finding her a very appealing presence, just a lightweight Oscar nominee).

You know how when I do those Year Files, I like to list "Gourmet Prospects" for eligible turns from a given Oscar year that I haven't yet caught up with? So far for '76, though you'd only know this if you were looking at my hard drive, I've got Bujold in Obsession, Edith Clever in Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O, and Harris in Freaky Friday or Family Plot, plus her costars Jodie Foster and Karen Black, at the top of that list... so, how nice to be corroborated on my hunches by these first few comments! After that, Cicely Tyson in The River Niger (based on a Tony-winning play that I admire, and Tyson rarely puts a foot wrong), Jackson in The Incredible Sarah, Rita Moreno in The Ritz, Bulle Ogier in Mistress, and Streisand in A Star Is Born.

Otherwise, it's hard to expect career highlights from Faye Dunaway in Voyage of the Damned, Vanessa Redgrave in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Audrey Hepburn in the suddenly topical Robin and Marian, Jeanne Moreau in The Last Tycoon, or, stretching further, Lee Remick in The Omen... though one loves to be optimistic. I haven't seen Bound for Glory but expect Melinda Dillon's role is probably small. I haven't seen Truffaut's much-beloved Small Change, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's some lovely ensemble work happening in there.

Lastly - just in case you're still wondering if I listen to you! - given comments in earlier threads by Laika and Canadian Ken, I'm more intrigued than I previously was by Jessica Lange in King Kong or Sarah Miles in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Sharing Nathaniel's perpetual dream that actors will give their all to a good comic performance, even if the material is subpar, I would like to think Goldie Hawn might be offering an above-average version of her Thing in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, which did earn her a Globe nod, but maybe the HFPA was scraping for nominees, too?

6:32 PM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger Daniel Smith said...

Richard Lester's Robin and Marian is probably my favorite Robin Hood film of all time (although I do have a sentimental pull towards the Disney animated version--parts of it at least), and Hepburn is very good. Part of your appreciation of it probably depends on how much you like Richard Lester, and part depends on your feelings about Hepburn; I like her from The Nun's Story on, and don't have a lot of use for her early films. She would probably make my list. But for the win, I'm all about Sissy Spacek--the second of a half-dozen Best Actress wins I would give her. (Yes, six. You guys can have your Katharine Hepburns and Bette Davises and your Jane Fondas and your Meryl Streeps, and I'll take my Sissy Spacek.)

11:44 PM, May 14, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Daniel: Just guessing here: Badlands, Carrie, Coal Miner's Daughter, Raggedy Man, Crimes of the Heart, and In the Bedroom? I do love a loyalist.

10:23 AM, May 15, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the film is as light and apolitical as you dismiss it as – I've read quite a few analyses of this film that, like you say, argue it really is all about these French middle-class values being untangled and its blatant hypocrisy (particularly when it comes to getting pleasure) being revealed.

Anyway, I adore this nomination, and I'll defend it to the death. Like Damien Bona said, there's something McCarey-esque about the way Barrault approaches her role; she's so charming, so charismatic. I can understand why you feel it's a pretty slight, low-impact role, but she honestly moved me as much as the brilliant Spacek and Ullmann did this year. A marvelous performance.

11:45 AM, October 13, 2010  

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