Let Me Catch My Breath

Jeanne Balibar’s “Les Historiennes”

By Meredith Lawrence

A gray folding table and a black chair sit on one side of an empty stage. The French film star Jeanne Balibar, wearing a lime-green, wide-legged jumpsuit marches on, folds herself into the chair and begins to read from a book. She reads in French, not too fast to follow, but the words come out so close together that there is no time to absorb their meaning; English subtitles keep pace on a large black screen behind her. Reading almost ceaselessly for four hours, Balibar presents three stories in three separate acts. Each act focuses on the life of one female historical figure as told by one female French historian: Anne-Emmanuelle Demartini’s account of the public reaction to Violette Noziére’s murder of her father after years of his abuse; Emmanuelle Loyer’s writing about the feminist actress and director Delphine Syrig; and Charlotte de Castelnau’s detailed chronicle of the trial of the slave Pascoa. While the show highlights both the work of these historians and several important slices of history, it runs long, dense and tedious and feels like the initial notes for a PhD dissertation, before the thesis has solidified.

Jeanne Balibar: slices of women’s history Photo: © Carole Bellaiche courtesy of FIAF/Crossing the Line

In the first act, Balibar occasionally gets up to sing songs written about Noziére, to sit on the edge of the stage or to act out gestures to accompany the words she reads. In a re-enactment of a hospital room confrontation between Noziére and her mother, Balibar sinks to the floor, legs awkwardly folded beneath her like a fawn, her voice raspy and too forced as the mother tells the daughter how much she had loved her. She throws herself flat on the stage before rearing up; “kill yourself,” she tells the daughter over and over.

Apart from these rare moments, which taper off as the show enters its second act, Balibar reads without looking up from her pages. She recites the material in front of her, changing tone and emphasis to portray each author as she dissects the story of her main character. Periodically Balibar shifts position, raises a quavering hand above the table or pinches at her forehead as she embodies an author trying to figure something out. The reading is painfully loud and strained at times, at others, nearly inflectionless, and always rapid. In an apparent effort to add depth, Balibar raises her voice and accelerates her reading of a list of events or descriptive terms until the words blur almost indistinguishably.

The second act meanders through excerpts from Loyer’s compilation of Delphine Seyrig’s biography and interviews, alternated with clips from her movies: seducing a young man, breading meat to be fried, smoking and chatting with Agnès Varda. The text Balibar reads from introduces quotes and writings from Seyrig with a date and the place they appeared, which is at first contextually useful, but becomes tiresome as the list drags on. Seyrig is introduced to the audience in a deep V-neck blue sequined body suit with a large letter “F” emblazoned on the crotch. As soon as the sounds of sirens from the first scene of this movie clip fill the theater, audience members begin to filter out. The trickle of departures continues for the rest of the show.

For the entirety of the third act, which runs for almost 90 minutes, Balibar sits at the short end of the table, her reading pages illuminated by a lamp she dragged onto the stage. She recites the story of Pascoa, who was enslaved in Angola before being sold to an owner in Brazil, and was accused of bigamy. Because Pascoa’s trial took place over seven years and was documented in great detail, the account reveals many historically interesting details about 17th century life, the treatment of slaves and women, and the scope of The Inquisition. But, like the other acts, this one, which is organized into nine chapters, is exceedingly dense. Pascoa’s surprising strength and power are buried by heaps of quotes from witnesses, descriptions of the mechanics of the investigation and historical details.

Four hours after Balibar first sat down at the table, she turns out the lamp and as the single bulb goes dark, so does the theater. It’s over. Half the audience has left. One by one, the remaining people rise, offering a standing ovation from those who managed to stick it out.

As people filter out of the theater, they whisper about how much they love Balibar, noting which of her hand gestures was their favorite. It’s clear that she is beloved, certainly for her movie career. Perhaps if the show were slowed down and divided across three nights, one for each act, the audience would have time to breathe and appreciate each story. And those who came to see a performance, not just Balibar, would be able to enjoy it, too.