“Cinema contains everything. It joins writing, painting, music. It is the most complete art.”
—Juliet Berto, Ciné-Bulles, 19861
Juliet Berto burst onto the Parisian film scene in the rich late 60s period of experimentation and radicalization, just as the New Wave diverged into competing streams of political and humanist directors. Her biography (what scant details are publicly available) is mythical, and tragically short: Annie Jamet, born and living in southern France, attends a Grenoble film screening where Jean-Luc Godard is present; the director, captivated by 19-year-old Annie, offers her a role in his film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Annie moved to Paris, and by the end 1967, Juliet Berto (as she is credited onscreen) had appeared in three Godard films, a relationship that would deepen over the course of the radical 60s. Berto then worked with Jacques Rivette during the 70s as a key collaborator and captivating central presence in his most important works. By the early 80s, Berto gave up acting for directing, producing three singular films until her heartbreaking death in 1990 of breast cancer at the age of 42.
In a 1986 interview with Quebecois film magazine Ciné-Bulles, Berto described her path in front of the camera: “With Godard I was a character, a character located in my time, not an actress. With Rivette, I was an actress, because I played characters.” As many actors have said (though not many with Berto’s résumé), Berto’s true passion was directing, and she used her time as actor/character to train herself: “I was never an actress who wanted to make films. I was a bit of an actress, to learn. It was my way of living, of learning on the job, the job I wanted to do.” Berto, who has been described as a spiritual younger sister to Jeanne Moreau, was able to forge a path from working with some of France’s best directors on their most interesting films to creating her own outré leftist-feminist features, films that are unfortunately largely unavailable today.
Born January 16, 1947, in Grenoble, not much is known about Juliet’s early life as Annie Jamet—much of what is public about Berto’s biography comes from interviews with others. She has two sisters—one, Moune Jamet, worked as a still photographer for directors including Jim Jarmusch, André Techiné, and Jacques Rivette (for whom Moune continued to work until his death). As a teen, she loved Jean-Paul Sartre’s La nausée because, as she said in 1981, Sartre put into words her own young dislikes. Meeting Godard changed her life; she moved to Paris in 1966–67 and immersed herself in the protests, strikes, and occupations leading up to May ‘68, when she participated in strikes with Godard and Chris Marker. At some point, she married (and later divorced) actor Michel Berto, with whom she co-starred in Out 1 in 1971.
Juliet in Paris (1967), directed by Claude Miller (“with Juliet Berto,” per the credits) is a rarely-seen, surreal short that birthed the image of the actress: the deadpan, dangerous, revolutionary beauty. Juliet plays Juliet Michaux, a young leftist from rural France in Paris to study. Ever since Juliet arrived in Paris, she has been bleeding spontaneously, for no apparent reason. The abundant, paint-red, defiantly garish blood (echoing Godard’s imagery in that year’s Weekend) surrounds Juliet in a blur of B-movie violence juxtaposed against the mundanity of modern life—don’t get too attached to that adorable kitten! Through the increasing carnage, Juliet keeps her Keatonesque stone face until the final shot: on a stretcher in a hospital gown, she sits up, dark sunglasses over her wide eyes, and smiles broadly as blood pours down her face from beneath the lenses. Comedy hand-in-hand with horror.
Berto’s collaboration with Godard includes five movies between 1967–71. Her small yet indelible roles in 2 or 3 Things, Weekend, and La chinoise (all made in Godard’s prolific 1967) led to leading roles in a trio of Godard’s most instructively political films: Le gai savoir (1969), and Vladimir et Rosa (1971). Le gai savoir pairs Berto with the always-charismatic Jean-Pierre Léaud as Patricia Lumumba and Émile Rousseau; the two trade monologues on language, education, and the isolation and loneliness inherent in capitalism. Vladimir et Rosa, directed by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin as the Dziga Vertov Group, lets Berto shine in comedic, over-the-top skits about revolutionaries around the world. Berto plays yet another Juliet (further collapsing the line between self and character, a distinct trait of her early performances), a “true-blue red” who nonetheless spends her time not protesting hanging out in her commune of all-white artists. Juliet calls in a bomb threat to a Tel Aviv - Washington, D.C. flight, and it’s surprisingly funny! When she gets thrown in jail, she delivers the movie’s highlight, a five-minute monologue from behind prison bars in which she insists “Bars cannot stop revolutionary ideas,” and connects class war with imprisonment, telling her comrades in a fevered, passionate appeal that the prison is as much theirs as the guards.’”
Berto appeared in more experimental and radical films during this time; Destroy Yourselves (Serge Bard, 1969) was shot in April of ‘68, and accordingly, it captures the simmering tensions of people on the verge of revolt in a piece of defiantly anti-capitalist filmmaking. The film—with no discernable plot, disconnected imagery, and discordant noise over flashing lights—is didactic and pointed, though Berto is a highlight as she foreshadows her role in Vladimir et Rosa with a monologue in which she declares that the real place for a free man is in prison, then casually wonders aloud if she and her comrades should blow up the prison to release those inside. Marin Kamitz’s Comrades (1970) finds Berto in a post-’68, malaise-tinged love triangle including (though not sharing any scenes with) Dominique Labourier, her soon-to-be partner in a classic Rivette film; the film is a heavy-handed yet fascinating portrait of the slow radicalization of workers after May ‘68. Berto also memorably appears in Slogan (Pierre Grimblat, 1969) as Serge Gainsbourg’s assistant, and I. You. They. (Peter Foldes, 1969) alongside Bernadette Lafont and Anémone.
In 1971, Berto, Léaud, and Lafont—as well as Berto’s future co-star Bulle Ogier and then-husband Michel among dozens of others—undertook director Jacques Rivette’s massive 13-hour film Out 1. A unique, revolutionary mix of scripted and improvised action that allows the real world to encroach onto cinematic fantasy, the leisurely-paced story slowly unrolls a Pynchonesque mystery involving a theater troupe and a secretive group called the Thirteen. Berto is Frédérique, a young thief whose penchant for burglary leads her to steal some important letters, with fatal consequences. The thirteen-hour film was completed in a six-week shoot, thanks to Rivette’s affinity for long shots that let the action unfold without interference, but (somewhat obviously) faltered in finding an audience. Berto, to her credit, believed that Out 1 was cinema the public could appreciate if only they weren’t forced to watch it all at once, according to Adrian Martin in Cineaste2: “[Berto] complained during the 1980s that if televised serially in its episodic construction, it would be ‘able to be followed by everyone, no problem… even better than Dallas.” Out 1—a monumental accomplishment for director and Berto alike, one that confuses and delights fifty years later—functions in Berto’s filmography as a transitional work from her early work in which she was often playing herself, to her rich work as an actor of great talent.
In Rivette, Berto found a collaborator who understood her strengths and allowed her and her fellow actors to follow their instincts in order to uncover what Werner Herzog would call “ecstatic truth, “a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual.”3
Berto was able to combine her radical politics, acute acting skills, and incisive improvisation in her next film with Rivette, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). Both Rivette and Berto’s most-acclaimed film, Celine and Julie is the mythical, utterly charming story of Celine (Berto) and Julie (Labourier), two women who find each other, seemingly by magic: Celine runs past Julie and through Paris, dropping her belongings, while Julie follows her trail. The two fall in together immediately, moving in, playing persona-swap games on boyfriends and employers, and, over the leisurely course of the film’s 192-minute runtime, solving the puzzle-box mystery of a haunted house whose past residents are reachable by eating hard candy.
Berto and Labourier, along with costars Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier, wrote most of the screenplay themselves off a basic script by Rivette and Eduardo de Gregorio, basing Celine and Julie’s hijinks on improvisations. The characters are so real and lived-in: even as they traverse a (purposefully) silly and sometimes downright tragic housescape full of pale, sickly ghosts (including Ogier and Pisier), the audience understands them on a deep level. Celine and Julie’s relationship is part soulmate, part doppelganger, and part feminist resistance, per Robin Wood: “We may wonder whether Celine and Julie represent two sides of the same personality, or simply the togetherness, and instinctual mutual understanding of needs, of revolutionary women sick of the tyranny of the male.”4 Celine and Julie isn’t a revolutionary film on its surface, but Berto and Labourier’s empathetic portrayal of two women who completely eschew the world of men—nonchalantly, even, as if they couldn't care less—feels revolutionary, even today.
Berto and Rivette’s follow-up collaboration, Duelle (1976), is Celine and Julie’s evil twin, the other side of the story, exquisite in opposite ways. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, Duelle is the start of a new phase in Rivette’s career, one with tighter-scripted films not grounded in the “real world,”5 and a continuation of the shift in Berto’s. Where Celine and Julie is improvisational—often nearly to the point of breaking—in the melodramatic, focused, poised Duelle, actors’ contributions were more traditional and script-based, with less ability to insert the real world. Berto is up to the challenge, of course; as Leni, Queen of the Night, Daughter of the Moon, Berto is a slightly alien silent-film vamp—or a deconstructed femme fatale, as filmmaker Matías Piñiero wrote in a 2016 ode to the iconic performance.6 Without knowing the film’s logline—the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun (a radiant Ogier) battle over the ability to stay on Earth permanently—the plot is a mystery until the final third, when mythology, a series of murders, and a giant diamond all converge in the misty green of Paris in early spring.
Berto has never looked better than in Duelle, wandering through a magical, mirrored Paris in costumes designed by Schiaparelli head Serge Lepage. Her outfits change each scene and are equally gasp-worthy, from a veil so delicate that it looks like pearls are magically orbiting her face, to a red satin, sharply-tailored blazer embroidered with grand pianos, to a red checkered shirt-black blazer-blue wool cape combination that truly must be seen to be appreciated (Please see Ryan Swen’s documentation of all the costumes7). Instead of being outshadowed by her remarkable wardrobe, Berto embodies the drama and the pathos of a psychic witch who uses manipulation and violence to get what she wants: a life beyond forty days of late winter, and is that really so much to ask?
In the following years, Berto would work with Joseph Losey and Alain Delon on the anti-Nazi allegory Mr. Klein (1976), Jean-Louis Tritignant and Catherine Deneuve on a crime thriller (Other People’s Money, 1978), and Nadine Tritignant on a TV movie. At the same time as she was expanding her resume, Berto remained in touch with radical filmmaking; she appears in Delphine Seyrig and Les Insoumuses’ 1976 film Be Pretty and Shut Up! and the collective was inspired to name their next documentary Miso and Maso Go Boating. One of Berto’s final starring roles was in Guns (1980), a left-wing response to Cold War paranoia directed by Robert Kramer. Guns shows Berto in her full power: far from a stoic young revolutionary, she’s matured into a woman of the world, all smirks, short skirts, and sharp remarks. But as the main arms-dealing plot weaves around her, Berto’s Margot spends much of the movie helping an old woman die in peace in a tiny apartment, eventually bearing witness as the woman takes her last breath. Margot closes her own eyes and accepts the responsibility beatifically, peace and grief across her face at once, a flash of Berto’s quietly virtuosic power.
By 1981, Berto mostly retired from acting, though the decade would see her occasionally in unexpected films like 1985’s A Suspended Life from Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyn Saab and 1981’s The Other One, a doc-hybrid based on the letters of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. Instead, Berto knew that she had the experience and the technical ability to move into directing. Her directorial output is a rich patchwork that includes her experiences in front of the camera: the bright rage at police and capitalism she explored with Godard and other French Marxists of the 60s; the dreaminess of Duelle; and the relationship-centered feminist world of Celine and Julie Go Boating.
Berto’s directorial debut Neige (1981, co-directed with her then-partner Jean-Henri Roger) begins with a confident tracking shot through a dive bar, starting from the back where a band is playing through the kitchen and into the front bar, where Berto’s Anita is bartending. Neither melodramatic heroine nor mouthpiece for radical thought, Anita is a fascinating character: in a low-key love triangle with a West Indian preacher and a Hungarian boxer, Anita is alive at night, leaving her bar and spending the long evenings walking her neighborhood and hanging out at the carnival, a central place in Anita and her coterie’s lives. Her surrogate son Bobby, a Caribbean immigrant, deals drugs to people in the neighborhood, and though Anita tries to warn him that police have been hanging around, he ends up chased and shot dead in the street by undercover officers. Particularly cutting is that the officers coerced a white neighborhood denizen with a daughter in prison into giving Bobby up for her freedom. The portrayal of the police’s role in this multiethnic, working-class neighborhood is more realistic than that of Vladimir et Rosa, but it’s no less a cry for revolt.
Bobby’s murder at the hands of the police leaves a hole in Anita’s heart and, more urgently, the crew of people who depended on Bobby for drugs; without Bobby around, the delicate ecosystem made up of sex workers, service workers, trans people, and people of color are in danger of withdrawal, arrest, or worse. Anita and preacher Jocko (Robert Liensol) make it their mission to borrow money and find clean drugs so their sick comrades don’t have to. Neige is a radical vision of community, one where police (and emphatically not drug dealers and sex workers) are the villain and enemy of the people.
The writer Piérre Tevanian keenly described Berto’s presence in her next film (co-directed with Roger), Cap Canaille, as “sublimely expressing a tragic feeling that seems to have animated her forever: suppressed rage and disgust.”8 She brings that teenage recognition of Sartre’s nihilism and her own failed revolutionary inclinations to the story of Paula, a woman tragically caught in the consequences of the violent men around her. Paula is trapped between the worlds of drug trafficking, real estate fraud, and bank robbery, so it’s no wonder that even though she does all the things a heroine should, she still ends the movie at the bottom of a river in her beloved red convertible. According to Roger’s daughter Jane,9 who was on the set of Cap Canaille as a young child, Berto and Roger wanted there to be “no boundary between reality and fiction,” describing passers-by as alarmed when shooting a scene where Patrick Chesnais emerges from a bank, pistol in hand. Cap Canaille is a dangerous, live-wire film that feels like the action could jump off the screen and happen in the real world.
Havre (1986), Berto’s final directorial effort, steps away from the real worlds of Neige and Cap Canaille; like Duelle, Havre is Berto’s version of “obstinate make-believe,” as Steve MacFarlane wrote.10 Dedicated to Joséphine Baker and Glauber Rocha, Havre has an impressive roster: leading actor Frédérique Jamet is the daughter of Moune and Juliet’s niece, pioneering leftist documentarian Joris Ivens appears in a pivotal role, the score was performed by recently rediscovered Japanese synth wizard Yasuaki Shimizu, and Berto’s old friend Chris Marker is credited “avec l’aide amicable” (presumably for help with the computer game imagery, which is reminiscent of Marker’s work). A return to the French port city of Le Havre—where earlier French films Un chien andalou and La bête humaine were shot—Havre foresees the hacker-chic and AI debates of the 1990s as a child plays a miraculous 8-bit video game that can control the action around him, even bringing fictional characters to life and dead people back from the grave. Havre’s locations are desolate, vibrant pink and orange sunsets that paint the industrial landscape as Jamet wanders through—a post-punk Monica Vitti in Red Desert. Tarot imagery (a throwback to Celine and Julie) throughout balances the industrialism and resurrectionist technology with old-fashioned esoterica. In Berto’s earlier films, the sense of looseness and improvisation is palpable. Not so with Havre; tightly-choreographed chase and fight sequences are sprinkled throughout the more philosophical scenes. Havre is a puzzle film in the style of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Rivette; Berto gives us the pieces, but how do we put them together?
Unfortunately, Berto was never able to follow up Havre’s technological provocations; she died of breast cancer in 1990 while at work on a fourth feature. The details we know of her personal life are precious few, but provide a peek into the life of a private genius. She loved music, especially Billie Holiday, Celia Cruz, and Maria Callas: women with overwhelming talents, in whom she might have seen herself. Jacques Rivette took her to see All About Eve before making Celine and Julie; she absolutely hated it,11 with the exception of Marilyn Monroe. In that 1986 Ciné-Bulles interview, she said of her career: “I never waited. I always went where I had to go. As long as I have this monstrous energy that pushes me when making a film, as long as images explode in my head, I will have to make films at all costs.”
Berto’s three films are portraits of France in the 80s from the lens of a 60s radical who has not lost any of her fire. Her films are incisive about how police repression of leftists post-’68 became the norm in marginalized communities, and how those communities create their own societies after being left behind for so long. The writer Josephine Leroy put it best when she described Berto thus: “Always in search of a collective synergy, Juliet Berto carried within her an ideal of communion.”12 Throughout her too-brief career in front of and behind the camera, Berto sought in front of us to find that ideal of communion: with her fellow actors, with her directors, with her audiences, and with herself.