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Simone Barbès



Essay by Élisabeth Lebovici

On Simone Barbes or Virtue


TRANSLATED FROM Contre-cultures 1969-1989, l'esprit français (Guillaume Désanges and François Piron ed.), Paris, La Découverte-La maison rouge, 2017.

Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbès ou la vertu was shot in the summer of 1979 – a summer I remember well – on the rue de la Gaîté in Paris, at night. The Montparnasse of the time was nothing like it is now. Back then, the road was a bold mix of thespians and street walkers, sex shops and music halls. At certain times of day, a wild bunch of gamblers would come out of the the betting shops on the rue Vandamme and come crashing into one of the four screens of the Mille Colonnes porn cinema. Formerly a restaurant that served workers, the cinema – rebaptised as Ciné-Vog for the film – was adjacent to Bobino, which put on “Left Bank” singers like Piaf, Brassens, Barbara, Léo Ferré. It was here, around Bobino, in the rue de la Gaîté’s “court of miracles” that Simone Barbès was filmed.[1] The shoot was slightly acrobatic, straddling Portuguese night club “Le Week-End”’s weekday hiatus, and the small slots of time in which the porn cinema was left empty – in the early hours, after the final film of the evening had played. “We had to dismantle the set to free-up the club at the weekend, and before the first screening of the day at the cinema, so everything had to be very easy to move,” remembers Benedict Beaugé, for whom Simone Barbès was pretty much his first experience of set decorating.[2] The team was minimal. Other than  Beaugé, team members included the assistant make-up artist Mario Fernandes, and production assistant Nathalie Cercuel,[3] who also appears as an extra, as does the head make-up artist Nicole Neltner, who we see dancing like a mad woman in the nightclub scene.[4]


Having initially been rejected for funding, the film eventually received a small advance, which meant the budget had to be strictly enforced. Paul Vecchiali, the producer, saw to this: after all, ‘Tout le mode au turbin’ (‘Everyone to work’) was the slogan of Diagonale, the production company he co-founded in 1976, along with the filmmakers Cecile Clairval and the caterer Pierre Belleu. Until 1998, Diagonale dealt not only with production but was also a catering business for events (shoots, marriages, and so on), and later a distributor for “oblique” films: those of Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Treilhou, Gerard Frot-Coutaz, Noël Simsolo, and Jacques Davila, for example. Like Warhol, Diagonale had its reoccurring actors: Francoise Lebrun, Michel Delahaye, Tony Marshall, Sonia Saviange, Hélène Surgère, Nicolas Silberg, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Paulette Bouvet, Denise Farchy, Marianne Basler, Micheline Presle and Danielle Darrieux. The cash they earned from the catering side of the business kept the money coming in, but income from the films was much more sporadic. Films were often ‘twinned’, with one shoot in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Others films were “omnibuses”, bringing together several shorts (L’archipel des amours, 1983). Vecchiali refused to play Diagonale’s boss, sometimes sliding into the role of editor (of Simone Barbès, namely) He was above all the person who “looked after the accounts”, managing the funding of film – each of which he considered to be “a different territory, and one territory should never encroach on another”. He considered himself to be great at admin: “Which is important in a company that prides itself on its freedom”.[5] Critic Serge Daney, who mentioned Diagonale in his first appearance on the show Le Masque et la Plume in 1980, after the release of Simone Barbès, said that he considered Vecchiali to be “the best French producer. Not only are all his films “pretty good” but what he does is to take material and work on it, refine it. They manage to do what French cinema has never done before: working over pre-existent materials. They have the desire not only to cite old cinema – interwar francophone cinema – but to make it anew, but better”[6]


Simone Barbès ou la vertu was Treilhou’s first film.[7] Before meeting Frot-Coutaz,[8] her assistant on the film, and having “interminable phone calls”[9] with Biette and Guiguet,[10] two filmmakers working as part of Diagonale, she had also worked several jobs related to the cinema. She was a “location manager, second assistant and a runner… [I] picked up a taste for cinema and the daring to make it.” She was Vecchiali’s assistant on La Machine (1977) and Corps à coeur (1978). Like Frot-Coutaz, Treilhou also wrote criticism, writing for Cinéma, the journal of the Fédération française des ciné-clubs, and doing interviews for Art Press, the art review co-founded by Catherine Millet.[11] Reading some of Treilhou’s articles in the 75 and 76th issues of Cinéma, I noticed a pattern. They almost always concern cinema that is said to be ‘other’: Argentinian films about the fight against fascism; films about Allende’s Chile; films about madness, apartheid and goon squads. In her writing, Treilhou refuses to let anything slide, though she did seem to have a few favourites: Julio César Ludueña, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman (whom she interviewed), and Straub-Huillet. I like what she says about the latter’s Leçons d’histoire (1972): “This is no longer art but politics and yet it is very much cinema”.[12]


Corps à coeur (1978)


Bobino, as seen in the opening

sequence of Simone Barbès


La Machine (1977)

The first text Treilhou wrote for Cinéma concerned porn cinema’s “bourgeois machinery”. This didn’t belong to the films themselves but rather to the “apparatus”,[13] meaning the space of the screening room and the film’s projection: “The hideout, the attendant shame and humiliation, and the idea that if you’re not rich it’s because you haven’t been able to make it and you don’t deserve to. Slowly and insidiously, you begin to doubt the virtues of your poor man’s phallus.”[14] To make ends meet, Treilhou also worked as an usher in a porn cinema. Simone Barbès is the story of an usher, shot at the same porn cinema where she worked. Ingrid Bourgoin, in her first ever role as the film’s protagonist, worked at the same cinema. In the film the story takes place over one night, or rather three moments that make up a night. These three juxtaposed huis clos constitute the quasi-theatrical structure of the film.


The first scene takes place in the foyer of the porn cinema, between the ticket booth and the constantly moving doors that lead to to screens the viewer is never given access to. It’s in this vestibule that Barbès-Bourgoin joins her colleague, Martine. Sat on two chairs on either side of a small table, they chat, smoke, eat a sandwich, drink cherry liquor and occasionally get up to spray deodorant in the screening room. When necessary, they talk to the customers they’re required to greet and chaperone from the ticket booth to the screen. They listen to regulars and refuse to give homophobes or chauvinists any airtime; they rebuff customers who give meagre tips or who, dissatisfied with the film, try to get their money back. This little theatre is carried out beneath the “gaze” of a pair of enormous yellow and white neon eyes, affixed to the shit-coloured carpeted walls that enclose the foyer. The eyes were the idea of first-time cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier,[15] who suggested them as a form of non-artificial supplementary lighting. Treilhou didn’t say no.


In the second sequence, set in motion by a series of travelling shots, Simone Barbès enters a lesbian bar. This "women’s cabaret", with singing, dancing and “Amazonian” acrobatic numbers, is also a trap for suckers the women easily relieve of their banknotes. Simone goes there to wait for her girlfriend, who, it is suggested, is an escort. As Simone hangs around, Jackie, one of the sub-hostesses, tries to flog her a cooker; the women’s band plays; a punk singer gets worked up in a series of dodgy rhymes as patrons look on indifferently; women dance and flirt; a man is killed; and Simone gets bored waiting. Asked to look after a pampered couple by Jackie, Simone’s girlfriend keeps asking her to postpone her departure before telling her to call later.


The third sequence takes place in a Volvo. The driver, an older man in a smoking jacket and a white pashmina (Michel Delahaye), lets Simone take the wheel. While they coast through the streets, each of them maintains a persona until they eventually drop the act. When she leaves, gender norms are reversed: he weeps silently and fusses over his moustache as he watches her walk away along the Canal Saint-Denis into the murkiness of dawn. This final sequence was filmed across two nights and, as Treilhou told me, a miracle happened on the morning of the second: the street lights went off unexpectedly during the final moment of the film. (Although as it turned out, the lights go off at 6am on the dot, as is the municipal rule.) External, unintentional effects are also part of Treilhou’s methods: “[I was interested in] filming things that I’d really experienced. I wrote a very precise script in three parts built around my job and my nocturnal life, always in the shadows.”


Simone Barbès seems diametrically opposed to the burgeoning French cinema of the day which, at the time, was already being called out for its navel-gazing and psychologising, along with the fact it was petit-bourgeois and very white. In addition, Simone Barbès looks like nothing else, something which attaches the film to Vecchiali and Diagonale’s ferocious claim to originality. The cast is made up of non-professionals and non-actors – people Treilhou knew, including Ingrid Bourgoin, although Martine Simonet (who plays the co-worker) had already been in several films by that point: Les Enfants du placard by Benoit Jacquot (1976), Le théâtre des matières by Jean-Claude Biette (1977), and Les Belles Manières by Jean-Claude Guiguet (1978).[16] With his recognisable silhouette and emaciated spectre-like face, Michel Delahaye had also appeared in films by a varied range of directors including Straub-Huillet, Jean Yanne, Jean Rollin, Jacques Demy, and, of course, those associated with Diagonale. Delahaye’s turn to acting was the consequence of his rupture with Les Cahiers du cinéma, for whom he was a regular contributor. In a piece written in 1971, he stated his complete “theoretical and ideological disagreement” with the Cahiers’ Maoist turn and denounced the “obstruction” created by their “bourgeois attitude”. But Delahaye was just one of the idiosyncratic individuals Treilhou sought out. There was also the film historian Noël Simsolo, who in Simone Barbès plays a Belgian porn filmmaker checking up on the handling of his film and analysing the sociology of its public. Meanwhile, the film’s composer, Raymond Lefèvre, plays an overfamiliar raconteur who, with his funny if slightly crude stories, tries to entertain the cinema workers. Production designer Benedict Beaugé doubles up as a perturbing voyeur who clings to the foyer’s walls; Pascal Bonitzer, then a critic at the Cahiers, plays one of the club’s spectral patrons; and Elisabeth Ayala, film critic at Libération, appears as a hostess with no clients, who props her elbows up on the bar while looking very bored. I’m sitting next to her. Next, singer and actress Elli Medeiros suddenly pops up in a red latex dress. At the time, Medeiros was part of the mythical punk rock group Stinky Toys. Josse, the punk rocker in Simone Barbès who sings “Je suis une nana-mec”, was a member of the group 12°5, who sometimes opened for them. Denise Farchy and Paulette Bouvet, frequently found in Diagonale productions, play a butch-femme lesbian couple. More than one lover or former lover was enrolled in the club scene, where, according to Beaugé, the shimmering décor, covered in lamé and wrapped around panels, kept falling on the actors’ heads. The barman who recites Racine was Vecchiali’s ex; the cabaret patrons who make moves on the dance floor were friends with whom Treilhou went on nights out in her home city of Toulouse; the female orchestra were brought from the lesbian bar Le Monocle. The "thrupple" in white smoking jackets is formed by Henriette on drums, Matho on vocals, accordion and conga drums, and their young protégé France on the piano. Sonia Saviange, Vecchiali’s older sister, plays the wife of the legionnaire whose coattails she is seen hanging off on the rue de la Gaîté. Her role in Vecchiali’s Femmes-Femmes (1974), a film Pasolini raved about, led to him casting her as ‘The Pianist’ in Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).[17] Simone Barbès also contains a live parrot, a presence I freely associate with artist Marcel Broodthaers’ installation ‘Ne Dites pas que je ne l’ai pas dit. Le Perroquet’ (1974), and there were also the night owls Louelle Interim, Tina Aumont and Maria Schneider who came onto the set nearly every night. All in all, it was an unruly crowd. “It was astounding even from a social perspective – there was an unprecedented mixing of different groups. But that’s always been my way,” Marie-Claude Treilhou explains. “I’m both a 19th-century country bumpkin and from a hyper-bourgeois world. The film is a reflection of my trajectories. I brought together all these figures who impressed me due to their originality – a notion that seems to be on its way out today, just like the quasi-total disappearance of regional accents. All of these characters in my life could only talk in a certain way – a way that was entirely theirs.”


Bringing these figures together, Simone Barbès also highlights a paradoxical inconsistency in its reflection of real-life social choreographies. As Simone says, ever the realist: “You won’t find Gone with the Wind playing here.” In the circuit of the sex market, social anomie is marked by the breaking of gender norms. Of course, there are a disproportionate number of men in the world of cinema, including that of the late seventies. Even during the “années-mouvement” (the “movement years”),[18] women filmmakers were few and far between. I think it’s important to note that the two major reviews of Simone Barbès, when it came out in 1980, were written by women (though the film was defended ardently by men, too): Mireille Amiel in Cinéma 80, remarks that Simone is “one of the most liberated heroines in cinema”;[19] Danièle Dubroux for Cahiers du cinéma sees in Simone Barbès “more than just a new type of woman […] the representation of a new feminine essence”.[20] Although Treilhou never belonged to the French feminist movement which, by 1979-80, was beginning to disintegrate, tugged at by different influences and factions, and fractured by betrayals, Simone Barbès is undoubtedly a feminist figure. She is the only character in the film to be given a surname; everyone else is called by their first name or their function: “the womaniser”, “the cinephile”, “the lesbian”, the “hanger-on”, and they are all transient characters. Simone is detached from others, alone. Circulating at night until the small hours, she doesn’t rely on anybody, least of all a man. At one point she says to Martine: “You women are all the same. He’s the type to get married before swapping you out in 10 years. You’ll be coming back to the porn cinema for a bit of fresh air.”


Simone seems entirely impervious to anything that could be described as male domination. In this sense, she espouses the thinking of “ideologies of revolt” put forward by the review les Revoltes logiques between 1975 and 1981, created by a research group  at the Université de Vincennes co-founded by Jacques Rancière, which endeavoured to look through history in detail to find “thinking subjects”[21] With the belief believed that the unveiling or deconstruction of the inner workings of oppression would be enough to shake off domination, it was a question of “showing how, at certain moments, small groups of workers were suddenly taken hold of by words and thoughts that were deemed unsayable and unthinkable; how they tried to break with the culture and their class as a social marker as produced by society” (Rancière). Simone Barbès is a character endowed with a “freedom without happiness but with dignity”.[22] She has her own way of speaking, an inner poetry that she has no obligation to explain it to us. “I’ll go to the end of the street. It’ll depend on the moon,” she says to Martine as she leaves the porn theatre. As such, Simone Barbès’ narrative power isn’t found in the actions of one or two characters but in the dynamics surrounding places that “are normally hidden or put out of sight, places that are displaced or misplaced”.[23]  The first of the film’s triptychs reflects the transformation brought about by the “mainstream” porno-industrial complex which had arrived in France at the beginning of the seventies. In 1974, porn cinemas sold 24 million tickets. But from 1975 on, the taxation of “X-rated” films, precipitated by a narrow distribution market, confined them to a “sub-genre”, on the margins of cinema. It’s this market that Simone Barbès exposes. Of course, the arrival of the VHS, the DVD and TV’s “Saturday night porno” won out over porn cinemas. The film offers an almost ethnographical viewpoint on the physical circulation of bodies in the porn cinema: the female workers, the male customers who skulk around beneath the gaze of the unwinking neon eyes, and we’re there too, implied and implicated, another kind of spectator.

Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze finds particularly literal pertinence in Simone Barbès.[24] In porn-adjacent films that cater to heterosexually-identified men, there are often lesbian scenes. This “lesbian scene” finds a parallel in the cabaret Simone goes to in the second movement of the film. The bar that she visits is a revised version of the famous Parisian bar Le Monocle; a vestige of the interwar period, from which the photographer Brassaï plucked “his” lesbians, in around 1932. At the end of the 1970s, Le Monocle was one of very few surviving lesbian bars, and would soon close its doors, in-part because by then its secrecy was seen as old-fashioned.[25] Simone Barbès does not share this reticence. With both the porn cinema and the nightclub – or even the car of the nocturnal pick-up artist – Simone Barbès consistently centres unconventional, blurred and “othered” sexualities that American historians have retroactively highlighted as being “queer” forms of sexuality, anticipatory of LGBT liberation.[26]


I remember the film’s deeply moving and joyful wrap party. The three women from Le Monocle played all night long in the alleyway at 33 rue Danton in Kremlin-Bicêtre, South of Paris. “You’ve got to speak about the alleyway,” a friend said to me, when I told her I was writing this essay. This alleyway ran next to Vecchiali’s home, his live-in studio. A detached house in the banlieue, it was also, like Warhol’s Factory, the set for many of the Diagonale directors. Every three months everyone got together to party in the alleyway. And to laugh. The films of Diagonale carry a notion of a ‘family’ whose lines – friendly, complicit, united but also critical – are just as concrete, real and authentic (but a lot more inventive) as those of the heterosexual nuclear family upheld by church and state. A few years later, when the HIV/AIDS pandemic would brutally extract carriers of the virus from their given families and exclude them from a heteronormative society purified of supposedly toxic bodies, this other kind of family would have a critical role. Simone Barbès shows us it at work.

[1] Most of the quotations in this essay come from interviews conducted with Marie-Claude Treilhou, Bénédict Beaugé and Nicole Neltner in July 2016. It should be noted that many members of the cast of crew are no longer alive, having died from HIV and AIDS-related illnesses.

[2] Bénédict Beaugé was trained as an architect before working for Diagonale – and later for other filmmakers – as a set decorator. He is now a celebrated food writer.

[3] Nathalie Cercuel will later become known as a costume designer on films like The Dreamers (2003) and The Da-Vinci Code (2006)

[4] Nicole Neltner, a former student at the ENSAD (École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs) who was working at the magazine Façade at the time, was a make-up artist on several Diagonale films, as well as for Ingrid Caven during her “Au Pigall's” period. She made her career as part of the Mafia agency (the agency has since changed their name to Wolkoff et Arnaudin)

[5] Paul Vecchiali, “A voix nue: L’expérience Diagonale”, extracts cited by Lucile Commeaux on France Culture, 23 June 2016. Also, Fréderic Strauss, “Comment survivre dans le cinéma, Paul Vecchiali”, Télérama, 2015.

[6] Serge Daney, Le Masque et la plume, France Inter, 13 April 1980

[7] Filmography: Simone Barbès ou la vertu, 1980; ‘Lourdes l’hiver’, 1981, Les contes modernes. Au sujet de l’enfance, 1982; Il était une fois la télé, 1986; L’Âne qui a bu la lune, 1988; Le Jour des rois, 1991; Un petit cas de conscience, 2002; Les Métamorphoses du chœur, 2005; Couleurs d’orchestre, 2008; Il était une fois la télé. 30 ans après, 2015

[8] Gérard Frot-Coutaz (1951-1992). Former student at the IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques), then at the HEC, where he ran the cinema club. Critic, screenwriter, actor, assistant director to Blain, Téchiné, Vecchiali, Guiguet, Cozarinsky, Biette, he directed Jeux d’ombre, 1980, Le Goûter de Josette, 1983, Beau temps mais orageux en fin de journée, 1985, Après après-de-main, 1989…

[9] Filmmaker, critic, actor, Pasolini’s assistant, Jean-Claude Biette (1942–2003) directed seven films including Le Théâtre des matières, 1977; Loin de Manhattan, 1980; Le Champignon des Carphathes, 1990; Le Complexe de Toulon, 1995; Saltimbank, 2003. In 1991, he co-founded the film journal Trafic.

[10] Filmmaker, critic and actor Jean-Claude Guiguet (1948–2005) directed Les Belles Manières, 1977; Le Mirage, 1991; Les Passagers, 1995.

[11] Under the name Marie-Claude de Rouilhan.

[12] Marie-Claude Treilhou, “Leçons d’histoire”, Cinéma 75, no.203, 1975.

[13] Jean-Louis Baudry, “Le dispositif”, Communications, no.1, 1975, pp. 56–72.

[14] Marie-Claude Treilhou, “La machinerie fonctionne à fond”, Cinéma 75, no201–202, 1975, p.105.

[15] After Simone Barbès, Jean-Yves Escoffier (1950–2003) worked with Agnès Varda, Jean-François Stévenin, Coline Serreau, Leos Carax. He also worked in Hollywood with Scorcese, Harmony Korine, Gus van Sant and many others.

[16] These last two films were produced by Diagonale, and were the product of collaboration, with Frot-Coutaz assisting Biette and writing the screenplay of Guiguet’s film.

[17] Along with Hélène Surgère, Vecchiali’s most emblematic actress. 

[18] Post-1970, “year zero” of women’s liberation. Coined by Françoise Picq, Libération des femmes. Les années-mouvement, Seuil, Paris, 1993.

[19] Mireille Amiel, Cinéma 80, no.254, 1980, p.76.

[20] Danièle Dubroux, Cahiers du Cinéma, no309, 1980, pp.41–42.

[21]There were 16 issues of Les Révoltes logiques between 1975–81. The editorial team was made up of Jean Borreil, Geneviève Fraisse, Jacques Rancière, Pierre Saint-Germain, Michel Souletie, Patrick Vauday, Patrice Vermeren, assisted by Arlette Farge, Danièle Rancière… Th founding manifesto was titled "Quelle mémoire aurons-nous ?" (What memory will with have?) and is about popular memory, an archive of words, figures and singular places.

[22] Jacques Rancière, Sciences Humaines, no.198, 2008.

[23] Mireille Amiel, Cinéma 80, op. cit.

[24] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, no.16, 1975.

[25] It went on to reopen in the eighties, renamed “Le Lolita” and then “Le New Monocle”.

[26] This is one of the arguments put forward by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, in Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold. The History of a Lesbian Community, Routledge, New York/London, 1993.

Simone Barbès or Virtue


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This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

Interview with



The effect Simone Barbès has had on French cinema can still be felt today, in the work of filmmakers like Yann Gonzalez – who has cited the film – as well as Serge Bozon, Laurent Achard... The same might also be said of the majority of films produced by Diagonale.

I'd like to ask about how Simone Barbès or Virtue was born and about the role of encounters and friends in its conception and production.



I already knew Gérard Frot-Coutaz, who would later direct Beau temps mais orageux [1986], which is an absolutely wonderful film. He was like a brother to me. He’d been working in film for a while, which was something I had absolutely no proximity to – not socially, intellectually or artistically. He was the one who introduced me to it, dragging me to the Cinémathèque, explaining to me how it all worked and showing me different shots. It was also thanks to him that I ended up working with Vecchiali. I had already worked on two or three shoots as a runner, which had allowed me to slightly demystify the image of cinema I’d created in my head – although now I realise I had no clear ideas about it at all. Little by little, I saw how it worked, that it was doable and that sometimes it led to surprising results, far from the pretension or ambitions of some filmmakers. Vecchiali also got me to act. I wasn’t a real actress, of course, but he used whatever or whomever he had to hand – he used everything. He had me act in sequence shots and that's how I understood how to use different shots in my own films. That’s how I got involved with cinema in a concrete way.

 At the same time, I was doing a day job. I’ve always had a series of odd jobs and at this time I was working as an usher in a porn theatre, which was not very common at the time. I was working with Ingrid Bourgoin, who plays the title role in Simone Barbès, and my goodness did that girl open up a whole new world for me. She was so commanding: a vital, restorative force in the face of the bizarre world of the porn theatre. It would have been very easy to become melancholic working there, but she managed to turn it all into a sort of show. That was one of her talents – to inject everything with a mixture of anger and deep humour that made her a kind of perpetual fireworks display.

The cinema as a space was also fascinating, like a mirror held up to the outside world and since I had studied a little philosophy, I was sensitive to notions of insider and outsider, to representation – these were the kind of things that moved me. Gradually, I saw the space as a kind of theatre, which of course is also a kind of mirror image. It was incredible: on one side there was the cinema and the auditorium and on the other, the image of the street and the constant exchanges between these universes through the intermediary of the girls at work, circulating in there. I found this to be particularly cinematic. It jumped out at me, as soon as I became conscious of it.



There’s also a striking moment in the film where the street becomes pure theatre...



Yes, that’s a heart-wrenching, desperate love scene played out against a window that was empty at the time and which we filled with wedding attire. This image was the first of the film I had in my head, the image from which I started to, well... write. I've always been attracted to writing in different forms. My real ambition was to become a writer but it was too difficult for me. I didn't have the strength to write. I found cinema easier.


You said you weren't a cinephile, but were theatre and cinema in any way linked for you? I’m thinking of Pagnol's films, for example. Was he a reference for you?



Not at all! I rejected Pagnol's cinema because he was interested in showing people with origins similar to my own and at the time I was trying actively to shake those off. I was more inspired by painting, or even philosophy – by certain issues, and yes, by some films as well like those of Jean Eustache, for example. There were issues that were in the air at the time, that we were all marinating in. We were questioning all notions of distance, all that we’d been told about representation.



When you talk about philosophy, are you referring to contemporary French philosophy? These were the years Foucault was writing his Histoire de la sexualité, after all. I was wondering if his work informed Simone Barbès?



No, it was a period of great destruction – of self-destruction, to be more accurate. I was surrounded by death, despair, drugs, whatever you like, and I was a sort of miraculous survivor of this post-’68 despair. Really, I would call myself a survivor.

But this meant that the only resource I had was my own experience – I turned to my internal, personal vision, because I led a very different life from the dominant lifestyles of the time. I had my feet on the ground, I was in the real world – do you get what I’m saying? No doubt that's what gave me strength, because I was both on the inside and outside of things. I was split in two which gave me the possibility of watching myself doing things as if from the outside, of having a certain distance, of latching onto a vision and developing it. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well.

I felt that I had more of a grip on reality than my contemporaries – than many them, in any case.



In retrospect, do you think Simone Barbès marked something like the conclusion of this post-’68 period, before the massive sea-change the eighties brought with it? Simone Barbès is one of these films from the late 1970s, early 1980s that I find very interesting, because you have a sense that a world is coming to an end and that we are about to enter an era of mass communication, technology, globalisation, etc.



Oh yes, I'm quite sure that I’m one of the dinosaurs, the last dinosaurs. And from an economic point of view, of course everything has changed, too. Just imagine – at the time, hardly any of us were applying for an “advance on receipts”.[1]



And Simone Barbès got one?



Yes, we made the film with what was known as an advance on receipts, which would be absolutely impossible today. The difference between then and now – and this happened gradually – is that filmmakers have moved over to the side of the broadcasters. Back then, we made do with what we had. It was poor cinema – arte povera. That was Vecchiali’s school and it was in line with my political and social commitment. I wanted to stay poor and I was surprised when I found that I had crossed a social barrier. It was tough – I blamed myself, it was really painful at the time. I felt I’d betrayed my class, that I’d crossed a boundary. I had a kind of commitment that made me want to live on the minimum, on as little as possible, with as little pretence as possible, with as little spectacle as possible.



You stood firm. Your work is proof that you never gave up on this commitment



No, I never compromised, that's true – and I could have, frankly. After Simone Barbès I could have done whatever I wanted. But hey, I didn't. I drank a lot, I drank whole barrels to try and recover! Advertisers approached me… Anything was possible back then… The difference is that there weren’t very many of us at the time and it wasn't that difficult to get noticed if your film was slightly original. We could make films with money from these commissions. It was around the time I filmed Un petit cas de conscience that things started to get more tricky. It was from that point on that broadcasters became essential. To get money from the CNC now you have to find a broadcaster and once you're in the hands of a broadcaster you don’t get to decide anything. This is a huge change – anthropological, even. All the young filmmakers who started out as auteurs, people like Eric Rochant who had inherited the tradition of auteur cinema, ended up making TV series. All, without exception. They didn't assert themselves, they simply began to execute – and very well for that matter, because these are people who know how to work. It’s a huge difference, an unbelievable rupture which has immeasurable repercussions.



At Cannes this year, Nanni Moretti spoke about the changes affecting our time and in particular the issue of big cinema chains and streaming services like Netflix. At one point he says that today we’re hearing more and more young directors say: "But you know, my film will be seen in 190 countries. 190 countries!" And that no one is even curious enough to interrogate what cinema is all about.

Of course, unlike many filmmakers, Nanni Moretti is someone who can make that speech, who can afford to be obstinate and continue to defend cinemas by rejecting any of these distribution offers, but we are undoubtedly in the middle of a historic transition…



This change has been coming for a long time, bit by bit. It hasn't just arrived with Netflix, not at all. It comes from the time I mentioned, the 80s and 90s. Netflix hasn’t come along and changed everything, at most it has just made it worse. It’s the logical outcome of global deculturation. It’s terrible -- a tragedy.

I feel like I’ve traversed worlds, countries, civilisations. I consider myself dead or, if you prefer, a survivor.



Earlier you mentioned the influence of the production company Diagonale on contemporary French cinema. I would like you to tell us what this experience was and what it meant to you.



Diagonale was Vecchiali, full stop. With a sort of small constellation of people who gravitated around him in order to gather strength or in search of cinematographic references. He was a huge cinephile who showed those around him a great many films. He never stopped devouring films, he ate them from morning to night and even at night -- all the time. Biette, Guiguet and Frot-Coutaz had a kind of cinematographic bulimia, an incredible passion and fervour for cinema. We would talk on the phone for hours and hours, dissecting a movie, finding out what didn’t work, looking for the crack – the place of betrayal, of dishonesty. That’s what we were looking for, if you know what I mean. We felt there was something dishonest about a lot of films and we were trying to attack it from within, to get inside the cinematographic fabric. It was extraordinary! We would continue talking until two or three in the morning!

This kind of fervour was one aspect of Diagonale; the other was more social. Vecchiali was a craftsman; he was someone who came from an intermediate social background, not from the grand bourgeoisie, who really inhabited the cinema. First of all, he lived in the suburbs, which was extremely unusual at that time; for people working in cinema, living in the suburbs, in Kremlin-Bicêtre… Well, there was nothing chic about that at all, believe me! But that was him all over. He’d transformed his street, which was an alley, and even the whole of Kremlin-Bicêtre, into a cinema set and was making povero, artisanal cinema there. He made everyone act: the greengrocers, the baker, everyone! And he did it with immense virtuosity. In Kremlin-Bicêtre, with mostly non-professionals, he managed to do Ophuls! These crazy, masterful reel-long sequence shots. Everyone learned a lot by watching him do it. Besides, there was no question of redoing a shot two or three times, there was no money to pay for the film or to extend the shooting plan. We made do with what we had, which took an almost religious and mystical fervour. We learned, we gained strength, we formed a group of people who had similar cinematographic tastes and who spent their time debunking the dominant cinema, which would eventually prevail.

I’m convinced this defeat is what people like Biette and Guiguet died of – this change of epoch. They understood that their world had ended, that they no longer had a place in it. And I think they died because of it. Only Vecchiali is left, but he's a force of nature.



I’d like us to ask you about Une sale histoire de sardines, a film you made for television, just after Simone Barbès. Could you tell me about the constraints you faced shooting this small, 53-minute film, which for me is exemplary of your cinema in the way it brings people from different social backgrounds together in an enclosed place, alongside some of your regular actors.



This film was about my ecosystem! There was a little garage in front of my house and at that time, I used to go into what I considered a sort of supernatural state at night. As if on automatic, I would go to see the mechanic – well, he was actually more like a night manager – at the garage. He’d created a sort of accidental refuge; he was like a social worker, taking in all the people of the night. There, the world was rebuilt in miniature, with this sort of haphazard lyricism. It was somewhere where, every evening, people would come together to gather strength. He was someone who gave people strength. There was something incredibly special about this unconditional welcome – a place where there was always food to eat and something to drink. He was generous and he loved people. He welcomed taxi drivers, passers-by, victims of domestic violence – it was as simple as that.



There is something else that appears in this film, which was already present in Simone Barbès, and which we later find in Le jour des rois, which is a taste and passion for language, different levels of language, different forms of French. It’s clear that the night porter doesn’t speak the same way Michel Delahaye speaks, for example. Earlier you mentioned Ingrid Bourgoin’s explosiveness, and she also has this specifically Parisian form of banter…



This is no doubt due to the fact that, throughout my life, I’ve changed class positions so i've experienced many different kinds of language. After two words, you know exactly who you're dealing with, what their background is – just like when you look at someone’s shoes, clothing or hairstyle. I’ve also read a lot which is something that has helped me to evolve and become educated. Literature is something that has helped me enormously, something I’ve clung onto a lot. It was through literature that I caught a taste for words.



Do the dialogues appear exactly as they were written, or do you allow for improvisation?



No, they’re spoken exactly as they’re written. The actors stuck to what was written. There are exceptions, like Noël Simsolo [who plays the Belgian porn director] in Simone Barbès, who wanted to improvise. It’s impossible to resist him and in any case, he would have done what he wanted anyway. Hey, the result isn’t bad!



Why is it important to you that dialogues are spoken exactly as you've written them?



That’s a difficult question! My concern is to be careful not to turn my characters into caricatures, not to trivialise them, to have them use the extraordinary expressions that exist in the language of the working class. There are brilliant explosions of intellect and poetry in this everyday language, and that's what I was trying to preserve and render. Of course, when we talk, there are times that we trivialise ourselves, when we make caricatures of ourselves, but there are also times when these kind of first flushes of language appear and blossom. What I tried to do was to save them, collect them, memorise them, transcribe them.



That’s why I mentioned Pagnol earlier, as a compliment! In your and Pagnol’s cinema, there is this capacity, through theatricality and beyond naturalism, to let the language of the people be heard, as if the filmmaker were only an intermediary. Michel Delahaye – and you know this better than I do – wrote a wonderful text in Les Cahiers du Cinéma on the Pagnol saga. It’s a very beautiful text about the filmmaker, in which he insists precisely on Pagnol’s genius in bringing a country and a vernacular to life, to be heard.



That must be it. I only realised this when Serge Bozon invited me to the Pompidou, where he had carte blanche. He invited me to talk about Pagnol.

I hadn't seen all of Pagnol's films, I saw them all – well, quite a few – for the occasion and I was absolutely blown away! But it took me 50 years to realise this, to be open to receiving it. It's funny, but that's how it is.

There is something else, which is anthropological. Before, in the countryside, and even in cities, you got real characters. People were very unique before they got devoured by the television and its archetypes; they still had their own theatricality and it was necessary, especially in the villages, to have a kind of theatricality. If you go out naked in a village, you’re dead! You have to dress to go out in a village, into the streets. You have to arm yourself with a shell, a kind of persona; to respond to the character people think you are, etc.

It was amazing – a grandiose, perpetual spectacle. Now everything has become smooth, people all look a bit alike and there is no one in the streets any more.



That leads me to Il était une fois la télé, an extraordinary documentary that you made in the mid-1980s, which testifies to the emergence of the small screen in a little village in southwest France, and the anthropological transformation that came about because of it.



That’s right. It was commissioned by the BPI (Public Information Library). Marie-Christine de Navacelles asked me: "Can you make a film that gives a reflection of the France of today and the effect of television, just before the change that is about to happen, with the number of channels growing by the minute, etc.?”

I remember freezing and thinking, "My god, what am I going to do?" It took me several months to say yes. I accepted when I realised that in the village where I lived, I could deal with both the history of television and the history of a rural society, combining the two. And that was the resulting film. It is what it is but there are some brilliant parts.



The parish priest's sermon on the image is fabulous.



You don’t get those kinds of village priests anymore. He had carte blanche! The church didn’t watch over priests like it watches over them today. It really was another time, another world.



[1] The advance on receipts is financial assistance issued by the National Center for Cinema and Animated Image (CNC) to French feature film projects. Created in 1959 by André Malraux, it is one of the essential forces in French cultural policy in the field of cinema.

Having often failed to obtain the advance on receipts, Paul Vecchiali directed À vot'bon cœur , a musical farce in which the members of the committee are murdered one after the other.

Interview with Marie-Claude Treilhou
Dream Workers by Danièle Dubroux



Cahiers du Cinema 309. Mars, 1980 by Serge Daney, ed. 
tr. Daniella Shreir

To mark the release of Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbès ou la Vertu, in which the protagonist is played by a real-life usher, I decided to follow in Treilhou’s footsteps by interviewing six female staff at five different cinemas in Bastille. Two are specialised in kung-fu films, one is a porn cinema, another a ParaFrance multiplex and the last an art house cinema. This group seemed to me to be a fairly representative sample. In any case, they had the overwhelming advantage of being just 300 metres away from the Cahiers office.



I’m met with a great amount of distrust at my first stop, the Saint-Antoine, which is currently showing Karaté à mort pour une poignée de soja [Return of the Chinese Boxer]. After a failed introduction in which I’d watched the usher take cover behind the till, the ticket seller shakes her head and tells me through the two-way intercom that she is far too much of a wildcard to answer my questions. Despite the encouragements of the ticket seller, who introduces me as “a young neighbour… from a neighbourhood publication… [who is] just here to do her job”, the usher won’t have anything to do with me.


I don’t let myself be put off by this initial setback and make my way to La Bastille which is showing Accouplements pour voyeurs (Breeding for voyeurs). Here, once again, the usher looks as if she wants to run away when she sees me. I insist: “What harm could this do? I don’t even know your name; you’ll remain completely anonymous. Come on. I’ll refer to you as Madame X…”


The second she seems as though she might soften, I take the opportunity to ask point-blank:

“Do you think ushers are generally happy in their work?”


“Well yeah, obviously, or they’d do something else”


“OK then, let’s talk about films. Have you seen anything lately that you’ve liked?”


“Nothing. No recent films… Except maybe for Tess, cos it’s emotional.”


Madame X turns out to be rather sentimental, nostalgic for a past when films were more like beautiful romantic novels that end with a wedding, like Marcel Pagnol’s The Well-Digger's Daughter (1940) or Maurice Tourneur’s The Two Orphans (1933), for example. Now films, like the tips ushers have to rely on, are reflections of the sad lives people lead: difficult, brutal, stingy.


“I’ve seen it all,” she adds, sounding slightly sick: “Horror films that gave me nightmares, films that even show caesareans being performed… Even a nurse in the audience ended up fainting during that scene.”


“And what about pornos, do you watch them?”

“Naturally,” she says, lowering her voice and her head. “Of course we watch them, what do you think? It’s our job.”


She compares ushering, a job she has had for two decades, to being a maid in a “bourgeois household”, something she did in her youth:


““Thank you Monsieur, goodbye Monsieur,” and that’s it. We’re good for nothing except showing Monsieur where the toilet is.”


The same goes for refreshments. She used to sell baked goods but “the kind of films they show these days don’t exactly stimulate an appetite.” According to Madame X, only happy films, real love stories, might bring back her clientele’s sweet tooth.


“Look,” she says, exhibiting the basket she’s just retrieved from one of the screens: “I’ve sold just one Chocoletti all week. If that’s not a sad reflection of our current state, then I don’t know what is.”

It’s clear that Madame X also feels troubled because nothing seems to be bringing in the customers. She’s sure that pretty soon people will tire of pornos, too. As she walks me to the door, she admits that she was initially worried I’d been sent on behalf of Monsieur Marchais [translator’s note: George Marchais of the French Communist Party] who would then go on to TV to say something like: “We need to get rid of tipping. Workers should be guaranteed a minimum wage.” I reassure her this isn’t the case. She asks me what I studied at university. I tell her about my Master’s degree. Her lamentations start up again:


“Well with the qualifications you have, your job’s hardly much to write home about either…” I leave the cinema slightly depressed.



Luckily at Bastille Palace, which is showing the Spaghetti Western Have a Good Funeral, My Friend... Sartana Will Pay (1970), I meet Madame Fernande Gentil, 74 years of age but fresh as a daisy, the Madelon of wandering cinephiles [translator’s note: from the song 'Madelon (I'll Be True to the Whole Regiment)' and then the film La Madelon (Jean Boyer, 1955), Madelon is a mythical singing waitress who became of the idol of the French Army].


Fernande knows all of the clients, who are, for the most part, unemployed migrant workers that got to know her when she was working in a cinema in Belleville and who have followed her here. She calls them “my dear” and “my darling” and sees her cinema as a public shelter. Alas, it’s about to be turned into a chain and she wonders where all her unemployed guys are going to go next. Next she explains to me that, aside from the unemployed, the cinema is a cruising spot for gay men.


“As for them, I guess they’ll have to go shopping elsewhere,” She says, with a wink and a nudge.


“What do you mean?”


“How often do you get guys trying to pick you up these days?”


“Less and less often.”


“Same here… Fags… They’re everywhere, now. Sometimes I worry that I’ll wake up and find my husband has started batting for the other team, too!” she says, laughing, and continues: “What you gonna do? They don’t know where else to go, and besides everyone is entitled to a fantasy or two – I’m entitled to a fantasy and so are you!”

I agree, while thinking to myself, I guess that’s what people mean when they talk about “tolerance”. Suddenly a client walks, his ears weighed down by gold piercings.

“Hey big guy, how’s it going?”

Fernande spends 10 hours a day at the cinema, making 1,400 francs a month. She dreams of travelling. She likes beautifully crafted documentaries about far-off lands and Ginger Rogers-style musical comedies. She has absolutely no interest in karate films and thinks their success is due to the fact they speak an international language – that of punches and violence – which is accessible to everyone. Before leaving, Fernande forces me to take one of her chocolate bars. I ask her the secret to her extraordinary vitality. It’s as if she’s been expecting the question. “It’s true. I’ve seen several doctors and they’re just as surprised as you are. I think it’s down to the human contact I have with my customers… They’re like my big children!” She waves me goodbye from the top of the stairs.



At the Paramount I come across Françoise as she’s taking a couple to their seats in the screen showing Rodriguez au pays des merguez. She doesn’t mince her words:


“This job? Oh yeah, a brilliant job if you like exploitation, though at least it starts later in the day!”


She’s young and seems a little rebellious.


“We’re only serving the boss. Clients have no need for us. We’re ticket inspectors, candy sellers, and live-in carers for the shrinking old guys who can’t sit up in their seats without assistance, and all of that without a centime extra pay. They even made us hand out little model planes for the release of Moonraker, and booklets for Rodriguez au pays des merguez. If you include the refreshments, they’re making up to 8,000 F a month in profit off our backs.”


While she’s off seating another client, a man waiting in the foyer with glasses and a Pied-Noir accent offers himself as an interviewee, telling me it’d be good to hear from a regular at the cinema.


I learn that he is absolutely thrilled with the complex and exclusively sees films that are showing in this cinema because the seats are so comfortable, the films are projected without a glitch, and the ushers are lovely. He’s made sure to recommend the cinema to all his friends. Lastly, he says, “The audience here is as chic as you get at the Champs-Elysées cinemas.”


In the background I see my usher laughing into her sleeve. Once the man has gone she says:


“Not again… I can’t tell you the number of times he’s tried that on.”


“What? Who is he?”


“He’s the boss… He’s a bit of a nutter. But at least that means we can get away with more.”


She doesn’t like the films the cinema screens but even if she wanted to she wouldn’t be able to watch them properly. It wouldn’t be any fun:

“Would you like to spend your time seeing a chunk of one film here, a chunk of another there?”

“Well, no…”


She advises me to interview her colleague, a funny girl. When I find her she tells me that she loves her job. But she doesn’t like films featuring “Bébel” (Belmondo) and thinks multiplexes have been detrimental to workers. In the past, going to the cinema was an outing and people wouldn't quibble over a franc or two on their way out. Now they want the cinema to come to them.



The atmosphere at the 14 Juillet-Bastille is cool. The usher I speak to, Anita, explains that she sees the job the same way she sees any other job advertised at the student union. As jobs go this one is fairly undemanding and allows her to read, think and chat with her friends. In any case, this job can only help her aspirations of doing theatre.

She’s absolutely certain about one thing: “I would never ever work in a cinema where I didn’t like the programme. Art house cinemas are the only ones I can stand.” She would never take a job at one of the Champs-Elysées cinemas – those poor workers have to wear uniform and stay in the theatre to watch the same film 50 times.


When she says this I realise it’s not the first time today I’ve heard that the worst thing about working at a cinema is having to watch the films. On my way back to the office, I ask myself if the workers who spend most of their lives in the cinema, just like cinephiles, aren’t also diametrically opposed to them. Indeed, while these ushers look on, detached, cinephiles spend the majority of their time in a state of completely unobjective absorption.


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