Translated from the Russian by Bryon MacWilliams
Various things can be demanded from an actor. There is some kind of balance between that which can be expected, creatively, and that which can be imposed by a director. In movies an actor can be placed under severe stress, demanded to produce, because the action isn’t continuous — merely a concentrated fragment, one shot from beginning to end. In theater, though, there is no beginning or end, but a continual flow of life. On the stage an actor needs to live. And, for that, a director must create a world for the actor — a world of people who love each other.
For the revival of Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, we brought together such people from all across France. We needed to select actors who not only loved each other, but felt a spiritual oneness with the characters, the personalities, on stage.
I scheduled auditions. A good number of people showed up. Toughest of all was finding the person to play Nina Zarechnaya, the daughter of a rich landowner.
The movie star, Isabelle Huppert, came. But she didn’t want to try out.
“I’m interested in the part,” she said.
“You’ll need to audition,” I said. “Read.”
“Why?” she said. “I’ll still wind up with the part, I think.”
The wonderful actress Barbara Sukowa traveled from Germany to audition. She had been in movies by Margarethe von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
A young woman showed up, too — Juliette Binoche. She had just finished shooting in the American film by Philip Kaufman, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was based on the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera. She also had been in a film by Leos Carax.
Binoche had a porcelain face with downy white skin, and cherry lips. She was small, fragile, very flexible. Later, in bed, she would remind me of a marmoset bounding about… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Read,” I told her.
She began to read the monologue. Not bad. Still, I was unsure.
“Will you come and read again?”
Again she came. She read the monologue. Again, not bad. But I wasn’t yet convinced.
“Will you come again?” I asked.
She came again. She read, again. Some other young actresses showed up, too, but, still, we kept looking.
Binoche returned yet again. Again, she read.
“Will you come again?” I asked.
She read for me five times, and she was prepared to read even more. I felt uncomfortable inviting her back, yet her persistence intrigued me.
Then I received a letter from her, in the form of a poem, in which I was depicted as a cross between a lion and a tiger. The poem was quite beautiful. It was in French, too; I didn’t understand half of it. It ended with this line: “I want to play the part.”
The letter even included a drawing to that end. It was a lovely letter.
I invited her to coffee. We fell into conversation. By profession she was an artist; her father was a sculptor.
I invited her to a performance by Roman Polanski in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Sitting next to her in the box I had only one desire — to caress her neck.
So that’s what I did. She didn’t remove my hand.
She belonged to another man, lived with him — Carax, the cult director of French cinema, the director who had made her career. I knew that she was being courted, too, by Daniel Day-Lewis, opposite whom she played in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Day-Lewis had fallen in love with her, apparently. I didn’t rule out that they had been lovers.
I remember once riding in an elevator with her, when I literally felt a pain run through me — the kind of physical ache that happens when one is in love. Apparently I made a face because Juliette looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong?”
I skirted the subject. And I didn’t kiss her, even though I desperately wanted to.
When I think of love and nonlove, the only true criterion for me is pain. Love is pain. Everything else is nonlove: falling in love, having a good time, or loving feelings toward a woman, a father, a mother, a brother, a friend, God.
Painful means sweet. One can even weep from the sweetness of pain.
Love, too, is a loss of control over oneself. And I don’t enjoy losing control over myself. I hate it. You fall in love, you no longer belong to yourself. Still, the older I got, the more reckless I became.
That moment in the elevator signaled a long, typically Russian process of seduction that bordered on sexual harassment. Russian men are like that, clinging to a woman like a wet birch leaf clings to the skin in the banya, the Russian bath. (I’m this way, even though my astrological sign is Leo.) We don’t have any sense of distance or pride, unlike Germans or Brits. They’re proper: if a woman let’s you know she’s not interested, it usually ends there.
I continued to try to wrangle out of her some kind of reciprocity, but, with the exception of that night at the theater, she continued to try to avoid contact. I don’t quite remember how it all unfolded, but one day we were sitting in a café, playing a game: beneath the table I held her knees closed, and she tried to open them.
My head swam. I fell in love.
Juliette wound up with the part of Nina, and we began rehearsals in a suburb of Paris. She unvaryingly stayed till the end each day; for her, there was always something more to do, and she tormented everyone. (Later, she would request a teacher of movement, and worked with him daily, prior to rehearsals.)
After that we shared our first kiss, in the theater. The first kiss, particularly when you really love a woman, isn’t simply a touching of lips. Above all it is a gauging of her reaction. Women react differently to a kiss. One blushes, becomes shy, while another turns away, shudders — or slaps you in the face. Still, that reaction is a sign, a symbol of desire (or lack of desire) for physical closeness. That desire to be penetrated can be felt even when a kiss, on the surface, appears innocent.
I told her one day at rehearsal that I’d meet her in the theater at such and such row, in such and such box.
“Right now?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “During the break.”
She nodded her head.
It was all I could do to wait for the next break. We each took off in different directions, then met on the third level, in the second box. It was there we kissed. It was effectively our first date.
From the box we could see the theater, the stage, everyone with whom we were working.
We did this every day: We met, we kissed, then we returned to the hall from different sides of the stage — me with red ears, her with rosy cheeks.
I used my official position to my personal advantage, as they say. Fine, so be it. It didn’t disrupt rehearsals. In fact, it only helped them. I felt a rush of inspiration, enthusiasm.
A theater. Balconies of red felt. I had the sense that everything was unfolding in the time of Molière.
Eventually we took a liking to a box that was closer to the stage; the break was only ten minutes, after all, and it took time to get to the third level, then get back.
I evinced the pure form of Trigorin, the novelist in The Seagull. I even have a photograph of myself seated among the cast, wearing the costume of Trigorin. And she was Nina.
Only, unlike the play, it was me who was in love. Head over heels.
Once, when we met in that box — ah, that red theater box! — we hugged, fell to the floor, and rolled across the dusty red felt.
She whispered: “You… It’s you… Finally… You’re the man of my life.”
She spoke the words so passionately! Rarely — never, perhaps — have I been told anything quite like it. Her words struck me like a blow to the head. For the rest of rehearsal I felt as if I were walking around, intoxicated.
Alyosha Artemev, who had come to write the music for the production, was a witness to our romance. The three of us often went to a Vietnamese restaurant where we drank sake. I wanted the role of Nina to be played as if she were a porcelain figurine — only very malleable.
Indeed, Juliette is much like a sculpture. And with her arduous work ethic, and powerful memory, I was able to draw out of her movement that bordered on choreography. For the role she had to fall, clown-like, while doing a cartwheel, then somersault back up. She performed it brilliantly.
Juliette lacked, perhaps, an element of tragedy. But, in every other respect, she was spectacular. (Actresses who perform Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya do well either in the first three acts, or the fourth. For an actress to perform well across all four acts is exceptional, very nearly impossible. Juliette was that exception.)
Across the street from the theater was a bistro. Once, after rehearsal, Artemev and I were sitting there when she showed up. We all drank a little, then she looked at the clock and said, “Well, it’s time for me to go!”
Carax was waiting for her around the corner. With their dog.
She left the cafe and soon could be seen, with him, on the other side of the street. She looked somewhat sad, if not despondent. Her appearance gave me a modicum of hope.
After the performances were under way, Carax became jealous. She left him, told him she couldn’t live with him any longer. She took all her books.
We decided to spend the night together. I was mute with feelings of both elation, and horror.
“My God!” I thought. “Could I really be so lucky?!”
She took me to her apartment. I was afraid to merely lie next to her in bed, and out of fear blabbered some kind of nonsense. Men can be afraid to sleep with women they love, but she didn’t suffer from such a dilemma. French women, in general, possess a Cartesian approach to sex. I’m not saying that they can have sex and, at the same time, read the newspaper, or talk on the phone. But they bring a certain lightness to sex — don’t spend time trying to make it elegant. Afterward, they can seemingly forget about what just happened and run off somewhere. But I only realized that later…
Juliette, of course, is a French woman through and through. She has an easy way with men — in the best sense of the word.
My happiness that day was very brief. We arrived at her apartment after midnight, around 12:30. At around 1:30 the phone rang. She began to get dressed.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“He wants to see me. He’s in a bad way.”
She finished dressing, grabbed some things and left — just like that!
I lied there, confused, in her bed.
Our relationship nevertheless continued on, and it was painful — a triangle of bohemian, artistic love not unlike Truffaut’s film, Jules and Jim. She also had had an affair with Day-Lewis, yet, each time, she kept going back to Carax.
After it was over I felt as if she, in fact, had been cheating on me — that her declaration that I was the man of her life had had no basis in fact.
Usually, after performances, I would drop by her dressing room and we’d drink tea, and talk. One night I went to her dressing room and knocked, said, “It’s Andrei.”
It struck me as strange. Could she have dressed that quickly?
I waited about 15 minutes, then stepped away from the door — but not before overhearing light whispers and muffled giggling.
I understood that she simply didn’t want to see me. Her dalliance with me was over. I was alone, again, and at peace in my soul.
Andrei Konchalovsky was born in 1937 into one of Russia’s most famous families. As a film student he collaborated on groundbreaking screenplays with budding legend Andrei Tarkovsky before cementing his own place in Soviet Cinema, then leaving Moscow at no small scandal for Hollywood — where he hawked vicar to make ends meet while trying to remake a career, all the while dogged by rumors that he was a KGB agent. Eventually he would leave his mark in Hollywood, too, making films with actors ranging from Jon Voight to Sylvester Stallone, and Barabara Hershey to Whoopi Goldberg. In the 1990s he returned to Russia, continuing to direct movies, plays and operas. In 2014 he was named best director for The Postman’s White Nights at the Venice International Film Festival.
Bryon MacWilliams is author of the books, With Light Steam, and the forthcoming, The Girl in a Haystack. His award-winning reporting from the United States and former Soviet Union has appeared in publications big and small. Juliette is excerpted from Low Truths, Sublime Deceit, MacWilliams’s as-yet-unpublished edit and translation of the memoirs of Andrei Konchalovsky.
“Juliette” by Andrei Konchalovsky as translated from the Russian by Bryon MacWilliams was first published in the anthology Paris, Etc. (Serving House Books, 2016) edited by Jessie Vail Aufiery.