How to Make the Woman Artist Exceptional

We just love a “badass” woman-artist. The system can handle rebellion – so long as it’s one heroine at a time. Underdog stories sell, as biopics and prestige TV and gift-shop chintz, while making for easy understandings of “difficult” work. But how to break out of the mythology trap? New narrative forms must commit to putting the art first, no matter how radical the biography underneath.

Delphine Seyrig sits on a couch, in what I imagine is her home, settling and resettling herself against the brocaded pillows. Across from the actress, in a chair, wearing a suit, is Claude Lanzmann, the former lover of Simone de Beauvoir. He is interviewing her for a women’s television program called Dim Dam Dom. Lanzmann (though he’ll eventually go on to make the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah in 1985) is, at this point, a workaday journalist trying to get Seyrig to open up about her private life. He mentions a colleague who called her “prickly” – a rose with thorns – because he asked her personal questions and was rebuffed.

To Lanzmann as well she has graciously and firmly said her private life just isn’t very interesting to talk about, or for people to read about. But he won’t let it go.

HIM: Do you like to seduce?
HER: All actors do.
HIM: As a woman?
HER: I don’t know, I don’t think that’s very interesting to anyone.
HIM: It’s not for you to decide what people find interesting.
HER: Yes it is up to me to decide what I find interesting.

We see him in profile, or from the back, while the camera closes in on Seyrig from all angles. In this way, the viewer is presumed to share Lanzmann’s point of view, willing her to relent, to give him what he wants. He keeps nosing away at her boundaries, as if her saying “no” were a way of saying coyly “keep asking and maybe I’ll say yes.” Lanzmann is refusing Seyrig the right to a life away from the camera...

– This text appears in full in Spike #76 – An Artist’s Life. You can get it in our online shop