What is an Auteur? Well the technical definition is a simply a filmmaker who has a singular recognisable vision; though you can guarantee they’ll also be a man as no women have been deemed important or visionary enough to become members of this elite club. As we all know, the singular vision of men is pretty much all that has been written about for basically, you know… ever, so in this column I’ll be avoiding that completely and exploring the women of auteur film. The muses, the artistic partners, and the long suffering foils of these sometimes talented, often awful, and universally celebrated men.
In this series I have often chosen to look at women who’ve committed to long term creative partnerships with a certain director, or actresses who’ve thrived within the arthouse film community and became bigger than the men that they found their feet with. This time I’ll be writing about a woman who created a life for herself outside of the iconic first performance that could have easily defined her, becoming an acclaimed musician and making sparse but acclaimed returns to acting on her terms.
Eszter Balint was the breakout star of Jim Jarmusch’s seminal film Stranger Than Paradise. The slow burn black and white masterpiece is now seen as a cinematic classic, more important than any of the cast or even the creator could have ever known—especially the sixteen year old girl from Hungary who would become its star. Born in communist Hungary and raised by parents who surrounded her with the arts, Eszter’s father was a poet and her grandfather was a renowned visual artist. They left when she was ten and they took with them a large chosen family made up mostly of her father’s avant garde theatre troupe.
Stranger Than Paradise was a film that I fell in love with the moment that I saw it, sharing its hues with the noir movies I’d spent hours watching as a child, but with a wit and vibrancy that I’d never before seen. Not to mention that this film was about a woman. As a young teen discovering art house film for the first time, there was something revelatory about seeing a young, smart woman who is the definition of carefree. Intelligent, sharp, and constantly running—slow and languid—circles around the men with whom she shares the screen. Eszter’s portrayal of Eva was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
A low budget follow-up to Jarmusch’s absurdist debut Permanent Vacation, the film’s success shocked everyone involved, winning numerous awards, including the Cannes Golden Camera, and secured Jarmusch as an exciting and original new director in American film. For Balint, though, the transition was easy. When her family settled in New York, their collective, known as Squat Theatre, created a local arts and theatre space. This space hosted many of the era’s most important artists and musicians, including at points all fifty members of Sun Ra. From a young age Eszter acted in plays, and became a regular DJ there by thirteen. That’s where she ended up meeting Jarmusch and fellow Stranger Than Paradise actor John Lurie, whose band The Lounge Lizards played some of their early gigs at the venue.
Eszter’s performance as Eva is nothing less than effortless cool, sardonic, and unbothered by the men who try and influence her opinions, behaviour, and even her dress sense. Though the movie is arguably an ensemble piece, Eva is the film’s true protagonist. There’s something radical about a film that’s solely about a young girl and a few months of her life. There’s no tragedy, no exploitation, and no romance. It’s just the story of a girl who has to stay with her annoying hipster cousin and the friendship that they find in their time together.
With the crowdstorming success of Stranger Than Paradise, Balint became an overnight success. She moved to LA, starring alongside David Bowie in the low budget oddity The Linguini Incident, and later in Steve Buscemi’s acclaimed film Trees Lounge. She starred as herself in the once-lost cult film Downtown 81, a retelling of the very community in which she had grown up alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat. Though relatively successful and still in the early stages of her career, Ezster found acting lacking and decided to focus her creative endeavours elsewhere. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Balint stated “There were cool projects, but a ton of time in between mingling in a scene I felt I didn’t belong in. My passion was not trying to find the right acting fit for me. I wanted to sink my teeth deeper into something.”
When we are constantly painted into corners and put on pedestals, it’s often very hard to say “this doesn’t work for me, it’s just not right.” But Eszter did just that, turning her focus to music. Though she’d continued playing between her acting jobs, she decided that her passions lay there and took the leap back into creating music full time. She released her first album, Flicker, in 1998. Startlingly different from the radical noise based music she was surrounded by growing up, the album is a haunting and atmospheric piece of pop more reminiscent of country and folk music than anything else.
Her next album, Mud, wouldn’t be released until 2014, though in the time leading up to its release she’d been featured as a violinist on some of the avant garde music scene’s biggest names like Swans and Marc Ribot. In 2009 she was a guest member of Ribot’s band Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn, and worked on many of his other projects too. With Mud her sound began to reflect the places and people that she’d spent so much time with creatively in New York.
It’s so rare that any of us really get more than one chance at anything. We’re either this or that. As women, if we become successful in a field it’s unlikely that we’ll take the risk to change all of that, even if we are desperately unhappy. Yet Eszter constantly made those choices and created her own narrative as an acclaimed musician first and an actress second, never letting her early successes define her.
In the production period of her latest album, Airless Midnight, Ezster was approached to star in Louis C.K.’s sitcom Louis. C.K. is a huge fan Stranger Than Paradise and during the six episode arc Balint once again plays a Hungarian woman who is just visiting, whilst making a huge impact on those that she meets. Eszter’s performance was nuanced and charming, adding a warmth and humour to the show that was often missing. Balint’s return to the screen was widely acclaimed, and she followed it up later in 2015 with the release of her third and most recent album.
Eszter Balint’s portrayal of Eva had such a profound effect on me as a young woman, and her later career has been nothing less than inspiring. Unique, personal, and always at her own pace, she has truly managed to live the life of a true creative, which is a rare, rare thing.