Roland Barthes, Actor

The revered thinker's only acting performance

Screen_Shot_2015-09-29_at_copy.jpg

André Téchiné  Les sœurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters), 1979, featuring Roland Barthes (left) in the role of William Makepeace Thackeray

André Téchiné Les sœurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters), 1979, featuring Roland Barthes (left) in the role of William Makepeace Thackeray

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.

Derek Horton is an artist, writer and educator based in Leeds, UK.

Issue 175

First published in Issue 175

Nov - Dec 2015

Most Read

Two Baltic cities with compact, open-minded and active art scenes
Stanley Brouwn has died, aged 81; a new triennial of contemporary art for Uptown Manhattan
WIELS, Brussels, Belgium
At home in the gallery
Dana Lixenberg wins the 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize; David Adjaye received a Knighthood
Q: What do you wish you knew? A: All that I don’t, of course!
Ahead of the third Antwerp Art Weekend, a guide to the best shows across the city
On Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the death of Ian Brady, and what laughter might conceal
Celebrating its 70th anniversary, a preview of some of the highlights of this year’s festival which opens today
Ahead of Paris Gallery Weekend, a round-up of the best shows to see in the French capital
A stroll through the off-site shows
Anne Imhof and Franz Erhard Walther win Golden Lions; the Louvre Abu Dhabi to finally open
Tate Britain, London, UK
Werken, 2017, Chilean pavilion, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Italo Rondinella
Highlights of the National Pavilions in the Arsenale
The best of the National Pavilions across the city and the Fondazione Prada’s intricate, collaborative exhibition
A first look at ‘Viva Arte Viva’ at the Arsenale
First impressions of Christine Macel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’ in the Central Pavilion
Phyllida Barlow, folly, 2017, installation view, commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, London and New York, and © British Council, London; photograph: Ruth Clark
Tanya Harrod on the art of Phyllida Barlow, who is representing Britain at the 57th Venice Biennale 
A response to some of the responses
With the sad news of the death of Stanley Brouwn, aged 81, revisiting this feature on the elusive artist, first...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2017

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017