Speaking and Recording and Broadcasting Their Truths
A timely exploration of second-wave, French feminist video in Callisto McNulty’s Delphine and Carole
Over the past few years, much has been said—hastily, thoughtfully, and above all with conviction and abundant evidence—about the gendered experiences faced by women working in the film industry. In the documentary Delphine et Carole, insoumuses (Delphine and Carole), directed by Callisto McNulty, the uninitiated are introduced to the collaborative interventions of Delphine Seyrig and Carole Roussopoulos, two thirds of the feminist video collective, Les Insoumuses. The collective, which also included translator Ioana Wieder, was formed in France in 1975, during the height of the second-wave feminist movement. Featuring extensive archival footage, Delphine and Carole, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale, explores the titular women's work in feminist video, a prescient history that may be unknown to many today, especially in North America.
Early in the film, we learn that Seyrig, an actor and filmmaker born to French and Swiss parents in Beirut, and Roussopoulos, a Swiss filmmaker and McNulty's grandmother, met when Seyrig attended one of Roussopoulos' video editing workshops. In a 2007 interview with Hélène Fleckinger, Roussopoulos professes not to have initially recognized the famous Seyrig. "Delphine quickly understood . . . the subversive use of video," Roussopoulos recalls, "We became friends after the course. And with Ioana and a few others, we started working together."
Les Insoumuses—a portmanteau combining the French words for insubordinate and muses—aptly describes the witty spirit behind the group's endeavors, which often involved using humor and frank interviews to expose the conditions of women's labor in media and beyond. McNulty's documentary loosely chronicles Seyrig's and Roussopoulos' activist video-making, featuring several retrospective interviews with Roussopoulos, who outlived Seyrig, and earlier footage of Seyrig, who did many interviews during her lifetime in part thanks to her high-profile acting career. Before her death in 2009, Roussopoulos began working on a documentary about Seyrig, and Mc Nulty frames Delphine and Carole as building upon this nascent project.
Watching footage of Seyrig and Roussopoulos at work and seeing clips from some of the resulting videos, one observes that actively experimenting with new media was central to their methods. At age twenty-four, Roussopoulos, Paul Roussopoulos (Carole's husband) and Jean Genet "bought the second portable video camera sold in France," (the first was purportedly purchased by Jean-Luc Godard "two weeks before"). Though video was certainly more mobile and less expensive than film, Seyrig and Roussopoulos primarily extol its virtue as an emerging medium. For Les Insoumuses and their peers—women-led collectives such as Vidéo Out, Vidéo 00, Les Cents Fleurs, and Vidéa, among others—video was refreshingly unburdened by androcentric standards and biases.1 "My analysis is that video had no school, no past, no history," we hear Roussopoulos narrate over shots of a black-and-white poster featuring two cartoon angels holding a video camera and a television, "It was a new medium, which hadn't been colonized by men and their power."
There are manifold examples of video being used as a means to prompt, record, and broadcast women's voices, including those of Hollywood actors and Parisian sex workers, as in Seyrig and Roussopoulos' respective projects, Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Pretty and Shut Up) (1976) and Les prostituées de Lyon parlent (1975). Video also enables Seyrig and Roussopoulos to nimbly respond to misogynist public programming. In the cult favourite, Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Maso and Miso Go Boating) (directed by Seyrig, Roussopoulos, Wieder, and Nadja Ringart in 1976), the filmmakers employ interruptive editing techniques to cheekily respond to a sexist episode of a French talk show featuring Françoise Giroud, the French Secretary of State for the Condition of Women. The words appear on the screen: "No image from TELEVISION can embody us. We shall tell our story with VIDEO." Intercutting footage from the show with songs, overdubs, and the filmmaker's sardonic reactions, it is the women who have the last laugh.
McNulty intersperses clips from films starring Seyrig throughout Delphine and Carole. We see Seyrig act in the new wave rom-com François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses (1968); as a fairy godmother to Catherine Deneuve in Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin (1970); and famously as a constrained a widowed housewife, mother, and sex worker in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Seyrig's myriad roles and the strong associations viewers may have with the directors she worked with—the impressive list also includes Marguerite Duras, Liliane de Kermadec, Alain Resnais, and Luis Buñuel—helps contextualize Seyrig as a celebrity activist of her day. As Amy Taubin wrote in The New York Times in 2002, Seyrig was "a thinking person's femme fatale." She was also bold, recording and participating in many direct actions, including signing the Manifesto of the 343, a list published in 1971 with 343 signatures of women who had obtained abortions while they were illegal in France.2
Much to her credit, McNulty allows the film to be driven by the protagonists' own voices. At one point, Roussopoulos reflects on documenting the feminist movement: "It changed my life [because] the Women's Liberation Front changed the lives of all the women who were a part of it." Speaking in front of a shelf piled with books and relishing a cigarette, Roussopoulos remarks, "It's difficult to understand nowadays, but we just had great times together . . . We met up with friends, we went dancing, ate out in restaurants, we laughed. We made up slogans . . . It was a really intense, creative time." Some of this narration appears over footage of marches and art-cum-political actions. The communal energy and mirth in these scenes is enviable. Watching this footage in 2019, one also notes the rather limited demographic represented. Without taking on a moralizing or revisionist tone, McNulty could have done more to reveal the context of 1960s and 1970s French feminism, as well as to illustrate the impact of video making on its heroines' lives and cultural milieus.
Seyrig died of cancer in 1990 and one wonders how both women would feel about #TimesUp and #MeToo, especially given the movement's mixed reception amongst some of their French contemporaries, such as Deneuve. In the end, McNulty's attention to the connections between feminism and new media affirm the film's lasting relevance. We may not know what Seyrig and Roussopoulos would say about the present, but it seems likely they'd encourage a new generation of feminists to explore and exploit the recording mediums available, and to remember the value of cackling in the face of patriarchy. Timeless lessons, apparently.