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PRINT January 2013

Alexandra Stewart

Photograph of Alexandra Stewart taken by Chris Marker circa 1964 during the shooting of Pierre Kast’s La Brûlure de mille soleils (The Burning of a Thousand Suns), 1965, as it appeared in Ouvroir, Marker’s virtual exhibition space, Second Life, 2008–12.

ALEXANDRA STEWART

FRIENDS OF CHRIS MARKER’S AND MINE have said, “Oh, you’re not supposed to say a word about Chris. He’d be furious.” But he’s not here, the poor lamb. I don’t know what I could reveal—other than exactly how I feel.

I’m from Montreal, originally, and from the age of eight I was sent to a boarding school at the Vermont-Canadian border, way off in the country. Finally, I said to my parents, “I’m not staying another minute unless you promise me I can go to Paris when I get out of here.” I got to go to Paris.

You didn’t see movies in Quebec until you were eighteen, so when I was living in my little maid’s room in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I went to the movies constantly, and I happened to see Letter from Siberia [1957], one of Chris’s first documentaries. Thanks to the cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet—who later worked with Bresson and won an Academy Award for Polanski’s Tess—I got into acting in movies. He said, “I have a friend who’s in movies, maybe he’d like to meet you. They need somebody who looks cute.” Next thing I knew, I was playing Paul Newman’s sister in Otto Preminger’s Exodus. We were shooting in Haifa in 1959, and in between scenes we went down to watch a military parade, and I was sitting there—Preminger said we had to be dressed in our Palmach costumes at all times—I’m sitting on the side of the road, blonde, blue-eyed, and goyish. And there Chris was, shooting Description d’un combat [1960] with Ghislain, who saw me and said, “Oh, my goodness, what are you doing here?” He introduced Chris, who was quite astonished that I had seen his movies. And that’s where our friendship started. Whenever I had free time, I would go off with Chris and Ghislain.

Chris never came off like he was this supersmart Renaissance man and you’re just this nitwit hanging around because you’re cute, or were cute, or whatever. Between his travels and mine, we always, always met up. I went to his place—not many people knew where he lived; I did—and I cleaned the windows. They were really dirty. He always had something like five or six televisions going, one with a direct satellite feed from Russia. Late in life, he had these glasses, these James Bond glasses with a tiny miniature camera on the side, so he could ride the metro and photograph people; and he took the most extraordinary pictures, which he then Photoshopped. He knew all the latest techniques much better than any young person. He couldn’t understand someone like me who can’t even send an e-mail.

I’m not very technologically adept, but I look at everything, everywhere. I’m the most curious person, like a cat. Like Chris was. One time, I was walking on a quay along the Seine, and I looked into the window of a shop. I saw this huge book opened to a picture of a woman, her hair blowing all around her face, and I thought, “Wow, she’s really beautiful!” Then I looked closer and said, “Oh, my God, it’s me!” I had done this short film with Pierre Kast, La Brûlure de mille soleils (The Burning of a Thousand Suns, 1965), and Chris had come to the set and photographed me. His pictures of me are the only ones I’ve ever—I don’t know if one should ever like photographs of oneself, but Chris’s version, yes.

I don’t know why he chose me to narrate Sans Soleil [1982], but he did, and we worked together on the translation. Sometimes I was so moved by his texts I would cry. It touched me so much. I always wanted to do the readings over again, but he would say, “Non, non, ça va.” No direction. Nothing about “Do it stronger here, do it less there.” I think he wanted the minimum “actorish” inflection, because the text is so strong, the images are so strong. You don’t need a third thing in the orchestra to drown them out.

You’d need a lifetime to follow all of Chris’s different tentacles. He was a compulsive worker; in fact, they found him dead in front of one of his televisions. He always said, “I won’t have time.” He was working on a complete history of the twentieth century when he died! But he was the most faithful person. Even with all the millions of things he did, he always had time for his friends. Whenever he saw you, he brought presents. I brought him owls from Montreal.

He had this extraordinary sense of humor, and the very fact that I’m never again going to get any commentaries (on whatever the ghastly political situation is) from Guillaume-en-Egypte—Chris’s famous cartoon cat, who kept us up on every single political movement throughout the world—is pretty devastating to me. I don’t know how I’m going to go on living in Paris.

—As told to Nick Pinkerton

Alexandra Stewart is an actress who lives in Paris.