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

Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
In the Rocky Mountains resort town, boutique facades hide the remnants of a surprising counterculture 
Pussy Riot members detained; Pope.L launches ‘Flint Water Project’; Ghetto Biennale participating artists announced
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017