One of the many compelling through-lines of the long and varied career of the French-Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold — who recently turned 75 and has worked with the likes of Alain Resnais, David Cronenberg, and Alan Rudolph — has been roles that tend toward madness or alienation. A small sampling from the Quad’s welcome week-long spotlight, “The Beguiling Bujold,” offers titles that find her inhabiting women closed off within their own minds or excitingly amped up about taking on adversaries.
“I wish you’d stop acting as if there’s something wrong with me,” exclaims Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold) to her co-worker lover, Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), in Michael Crichton’s terrific medical thriller Coma (1978; screening August 14 and 16). After her best friend becomes the latest in a series of patients to fall into comas following routine anesthetizations, Susan gets the idea there might be a conspiracy afoot at Boston Memorial Hospital. Her questioning and prodding proves an endless frustration to the men around her. Susan’s insistences even test her relationship, which was already strained; a wonderfully observed early scene tracks Susan and Mark bickering after a long day of work.
Crichton, an MD, was so enthralled by his milieu that much of Coma plays less like a sinister mystery than a calmly hypnotic documentary, with uniformed surgeons speaking in monotone about carbon monoxide and oxygen. But leagues away even from this toned-down genre piece are two character studies Bujold made with the Canadian director Paul Almond, to whom she was married from 1967 to ’73. Almond, the son of an Episcopal priest, inflects both with grinding seriousness and religious imagery — arguably to the detriment of Act of the Heart (1970; August 12), in which an affair between Bujold’s devout Martha Hayes and Donald Sutherland’s Augustinian monk leads to a histrionically violent conclusion. But there are strong moments: In one scene, Martha, who lives in the house of the ten-year-old boy she is tutoring, attends a cocktail party thrown by her host, and the sequence is cringingly effective at isolating her from the upper-class revelers around her. Almond sequesters Martha so brutally — she’s framed utterly alone, while the other partygoers are clustered together, clique-like — that her attempts to save face, by laughing or smiling when the other guests insult her, are all the more wrenching.
Where Act of the Heart can hardly get through five minutes without inserting a bleary stained-glass hallucination or Bergman-lite subjective dialogue in plodding pitch-darkness, Arnold’s Isabel (1968; August 11 and 15) finds the director frequently content to simply observe Bujold. The narrative presents her character moving back to the family farm in Quebec in the wake of her mother’s death. This is a house teeming with secrets and tragedy; old photographs lining the walls attest to a lineage of relatives (Isabel’s brother, father, grandfather) who died too early. Surrounded by grief, Isabel keeps a journal, scans through heirlooms in the attic, and, above all, listens to the house — to squeaks in the floorboards and the more menacing sounds from adjacent rooms. Almond shoots most of this in measured, extended takes, allowing Bujold to fully, unhurriedly approximate Isabel’s isolation — a register this underappreciated, hard-to-pin-down actress has conquered time and again.
‘The Beguiling Bujold’