A brief cameo as William Makepeace Thackeray in a biopic about the Brontë sisters seems an unlikely place to find the only acting performance by Roland Barthes. André Téchiné’s Les sœurs Brontë dates from 1979, only a year before Barthes died, run over by a Paris laundry van. Barthes had dedicated his 1973 essay ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’ to his former lover Téchiné, one of the second wave of Cahiers du Cinéma critics turned auteur-directors. When Téchiné returned the compliment by casting his mentor, it was, as Philip French wrote in the Guardian, ‘rather like Michael Winner persuading F.R. Leavis to play Flaubert in a biopic of the Goncourt brothers’.
Thackeray (Barthes) meets Charlotte Brontë and her publisher in Covent Garden and accompanies the novelist to the opera but, to save on the budget for a film made mostly on location on the Yorkshire moors, the London scenes were shot in Leeds, with Leeds Town Hall standing in for the opera house. Anyone who knows the city will recognize the Town Hall; in his biography, Roland Barthes (1995), Louis-Jean Calvet describes the visit to Leeds for the shoot, including the detail that 15 takes of the scene were necessary as Barthes repeatedly fluffed his lines.
In this still, with the columns of Leeds Town Hall clearly visible in the background, the actors are immediately outside a three-storey townhouse on East Parade, which is now the contemporary art gallery &Model (of which I am co-director). The unlikely story of Barthes as a screen actor on location in Leeds is made all the more intriguing by this coincidence. This is especially the case since it was Barthes who, in his analysis of a short story by Honoré de Balzac, S/Z (1970), maintained that it is through an artifice of intriguing details, enigmas and variously plausible actions that authors weave codes which come together only in the reader, who makes of them a unity.
First published in Issue 175