Interview with Sigrid Bouaziz, by Manon Lutanie for Éditions Lutanie, May 16, 2015
Manon Lutanie: At the Ménagerie de Verre, you've just directed, with Valentine Carrette, Je veux, je veux, a play inspired by the life and work of Sylvia Plath, which you also act in alongside members of the group Ghost Dance. I found it interesting that you worked on the figure of Sylvia Plath without having recourse to a pathetic register. It seems to correspond to something very accurate in regards to Sylvia Plath, whom we see as someone marked my desperation because she committed suicide, because she had a dark side, when in fact I think she was always fighting against them, against everything desperate inside.
Sigrid Bouaziz: At times we were afraid of not going far enough in this dark side of her personality. There is, on the one hand, a darkness, and on the other, a formidable life force. It’s a continuous internal struggle. This is what we tend to forget, because she fall apart, but when you really read her you find that it’s almost surprising that she committed suicide, because it appears that, at the same time, she completely enjoyed life, paid tribute to it, appreciated small moments. When all is said and done, what she brought to us is a desire to live and a desire to speak. The play also takes place here.
Is that why you chose to leave out the last part of your original text, which spoke about the end of her life?
To show all the complexity of her trajectory, we would have needed to make a much long show. In any case, she doesn’t only sink into something dark at the end, she goes in and out of it incessantly. Up until the last week of rehearsals, we kept the much more complicated texts, on romantic torments, the difficulties of creation, but we couldn’t deal with them expediently.
You also largely set aside the figure of Ted Hughes.
In retrospect, we made her break up with him into one of the causes of her suicide. It’s far from being so simple. In her writings, she often talks about him as the man she always dreamed of; he helped her to work, he inspired her, he carried her. But she also wrote at length about how difficult it is to exist side by side with another artist. In any case, we preferred to focus on her, on her relation to the world, without making their story the center of drama.
The drama, it is inside of her.
In her journals, there are pages and pages of self-deprecation. It is also very sharp in her poems, there’s a darkness that really springs forth. Once again, we would have needed more time. What we did, is simply a gesture of life around the figure of Sylvia Plath. She is very much alive, wanting to be beautiful, wanting to savor every thing, with an appetite for life. She wants to exist, to be recognized, to be loved. This appetite, it’s almost stronger than...well, it goes hand in hand with her destructive instinct. She lived under pressure, with a very strong ideal, too strong surely, that made her founder. At some point, the negative forces dominated, but there were also very positive voices. So the first show presents the first part of her life, even if we can glimpse elements of the end in the two poems we read at the end of the show.
That you showed this, that you broke with the figure of the accursed poet, is precisely what moves me.
It’s true that at the beginning of the show, we talk about the balls, the stories, we change outfits... Some people might have thought we were adding an element that had nothing to do with her, that came from us. Most people don’t know this but clothing, for instance, is very present in her diary. The desire to seduce, in relation to sensuality, is central. There’s something glamorous about her. She recounts her dreams of Marilyn Monroe. She’s not just an intellectual, there’s a girly thing I like, which is very contemporary. She wants to be a woman who pleases, and at the same time to be recognized by the world as a creator. She’s very modern, and there is an energy in the words that really makes you want to carry them into speech, something really striking with life and orality.
During the rehearsals for Je veux, je veux, you simultaneously acted, almost every night, in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, in a production by Thierry de Peretti). Did this in any way impact your direction of Je veux, Je veux?
They are two very different pieces. There’s necessarily something flatter in the manner of reading texts by Sylvia Plath, it’s literature, not theatre. Nevertheless, I really wanted to bring something very alive into Je veux, je veux, and a kind of realism too. In The Bitter Tears, what primes is not the apparatus, it’s not the text, but the actors, human interactions, and the violence of these interactions, what enters into conflict between two bodies. I really wanted to find this with Valentine [Carette]. I didn’t want for there to be an overbearingly visible conceptual apparatus, as we needed to read these texts by laying them bare, without much artifice.
I’d like for you to talk to me about acting, about what made it important for you at a certain point to orient yourself towards it.
I took a theatre course in high school which was nightmarish. As a result, I hated theatre and did not want to do it anymore. When I arrived in Paris, my boyfriend brought me to see lots of dance, and I also began to attend the Festival d’Avignon. I was rather fascinated by seeing people on stage. One time, I told myself: that could be me, in that place, but it was all quite vague. The energy required to do it also fascinated me.
Then, I modeled, and began to feel less and less comfortable in my own skin. Because I was going out a lot at that time, I was often approached to do things. I was offered to play in a short film; I accepted. This first short film, actually, was with Lolita, Lolita Chammah. I enjoyed it, and then made a small appearance in a film, and in a few ads. But I was getting worse and worse, I wasn’t auditioning, I had panic attacks each time. I could no longer bear the look of others, I was having tetany seizures. It became a real handicap. One day, I had a date with a guy in cafe and I could’t go in. I called a friend and said: "I’m really not doing well, I need to do something, I think I need to act in the theatre." I felt like I needed to express something physically.
I signed up for the entrance examination for Conservatory of the 5th district, which I prepared for with people I knew who did a bit of acting. Lolita, actually, recommended some texts, in particular "The Country" by Martin Crimp, which enabled me to eventually enter the national Conservatory. I first started at a private school, L’École du Jeu. In the beginning, it was disastrous. I didn’t know anything about acting. Then, I got to work. I think acting taught me how to work. I decided to apply for admission to the national Conservatory and it worked.
That’s where it came from, not from a childhood love for theatre, but from a real need to use myself as a tool to create other things. My body, and also language. To use others’ words in order to say things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to say. When I first read Sylvia Plath, for instance, it was a saving grace. I told myself: it will save me to say these words, it will do me so much good. She writes: "escaping to a convent, into hypochondria, into religious mysticism, into the waves — anywhere, anywhere, where the burden, the terrifying hellish weight of self-responsibility and ultimate self-judgment is lifted." In the beginning I couldn’t say this text, I cried. This is also what real moved me in her, this constant pressure to be someone, to make it, to be recognized, a desire that is overwhelming, so overwhelming, and the pressure she exerts on herself, the pressure to love herself and to measure up to the esteem she aught to have of herself, that’s particularly touching. Self-judgment and how others perceive you… it’s true, it’s a terrifying burden.
How did you invest yourself in the role of Gabrielle in The Bitter Tears?
In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure how to approach the role, I found it difficult. I never had this place of the phantasm, this glorious place — I was a rejected child and asked myself what I put off that earned me that role. At the same time, maybe Thierry [de Peretti] was right because this Gaby character harks back to the same themes that I’ve been talking about. She’s someone who is constantly prevented from speaking. She tries to express herself and no one listens to her, she tries to be heard and it doesn’t work. Ultimately, these are challenges that are motors in my life, that push me to act. At first I was afraid of repeating this motif, of locking myself into something. I tried to make the part consistent, alive, funny, to give it a place, so it’s like a victory for me to feel like I moved beyond something by repeating a pattern that is mine. In the end I really enjoyed developing the comedic aspect of the character, making people laugh with it. And then, in acting out the play related to Sylvia Plath soon thereafter, where I expose myself in a more intimate way, I finally became responsible for the place I was taking.
With the direction of the play, do you think you are resolve, balancing a difficulty posed by the fact of being an actress?
Yes, you need to provoke things. There is also the fact that if I am not working, I wither. The need to make is larger than everything else. I don’t have whims in directing a play, each project necessitates its own form. Valentine [Carette] made me read Sylvia Plath, and it presented itself as obvious, we wanted to carry her words. Same thing for the film, I was preoccupied by a text, once again having to do with the impossibility to speak.
A text by Gilas Milin that I also presented at the admissions contest for the Conservatory. In it, there is someone who wants to make a declaration of love, he makes a declaration of love but can’t really get there, he stammers… He spends hours mixing himself up, and finally he says I…. It’s a magnificent text. When I read it I felt like he was saying everything I couldn’t say.
Was that the challenge for you in directing Mon amour?
Yes. And I really wanted to direct a film, to see what that was like. For me, making a film, directing, acting, it’s all the same job, I practice the same profession in doing all of it, it’s part of the same whole. My tools are words, images, my body — all of this is part of my work.
Sigrid Bouaziz, Mon amour, still, 2013
Do you often observe the acting of others, of certain actresses?
I liked to think about other actors when I’m preparing for a part. For instance, for The Bitter Tears, I observed Sandrine Bonnaire a bit, in Vagabond, for her kind of direct, irreverent, tone. Often, before going on stage, I would replay her saying "Eh, fuck you!" I would enter the stage with this in mind and it gave me strength. It’s just for me, no one else sees it. I also watched Leslie Azzoulai in Travolta and Me. She’s a teenager, she’s very angry all the time; I watched her way of speaking, of just being there, I liked thinking about it.
In Je veux, je veux, you sing. Was it the first you sang?
It’s mostly Valentine [Carette] who is singing! I sang a bit at the Conservatory because we took singing classes, but I am not very confident in myself on that one. I was in a band with Théodore [Fivel]. It was called "Tout sur le savoir" ("All About Knowledge"). Between the ages of 18 and 23, I was very carefree, I multiplied experiences. Théodore sang and played music with Fabrice [van Lierde], Joy [Spitéru] and I sang. We played concerts….the Johnson parties… the first act for Moloko. With Joy we wrote the lyrics to a song that didn’t mean anything, and we sang it, it was a kind of spoken word rap song, and we wore incredible outfits.
You made music videos for your brother, Joakim. Which ones?
I made two music videos. Wrong Blood with Shanti Masud, and another one by myself when I finished at the Conservatory. I had never held a camera in my life but I really wanted to associate images to music. I asked my girlfriends to participate, and we filmed it in a bar. It’s very simple: girls’ faces, and I am dancing with boys in a bar. It’s curious because the music video actually did pretty well, even though it is so clumsy. Maybe because it has this fragile, amateur quality. In any case, it was a lot of fun to make. The other music video is more thought-out.
Do you act in it too?
Yes, I play one of the tigresses.
Yesterday you gave a lecture on Rachel Dratch, an American stand-up comedian, at the Centre Pompidou with Antoine Thirion. Did it give you any ideas?
More and more often I am told that I have comedic potential. What I really like with Rachel Dratch, is that she is transforming herself all the time. The idea of transformation, or travestying oneself, really fascinates me. With Valentine [Carette], we thought a lot about Cindy Sherman when we working on Sylvia Plath. In the world of cinema in France, you’re often chosen for what you give off in your life. When in fact, in films, I don’t like to be what I am in life. In Eden, for instance, I had the feeling of playing myself. People think this is good, I look natural and everything but… I like the idea of losing people a bit, of surprising them, of rupturing the image they have of me.
Are there any projets in progress, or forthcoming projects you would like to talk about?
I have a few projects in progress, but nothing certain for the moment.
In any case, having seen of all this, and after this conversation with you, I really feel like you surpassed something.
Yes, when I think about these spells I was having, and this inconsistency I felt, I think I really settled something. For Je veux, je veux, Valentine [Carette] and I really fought, we searched a lot, and didn’t find much. Like when I shot my first short film, it’s clumsy, fragile, but it taught me that humility involves a relationship to work. We often spend so much time working and it doesn’t always come across. The object is more simple than the work suggests.
I remember a scene from Mon amour where you are seated in a living room.
Yes, with Bastien [Bouillon]. It’s that moment when in the middle of the night he comes to make jokes to his…I’m supposed to play his sister. He arrives with Chinese toys, he makes jokes and plays a sort of fake piano. I’d like to make another film, I’d really like that.
Translated from the French by Rachel Valinsky