01 September 2010

Field Guide: Jeanne Moreau

For a long time, I believed that, if I were a woman, the last thing I’d want to do would be to make friends with Jeanne Moreau. At almost any given point in her lifetime, she’s been a candidate for Most Fascinating Woman on Earth, and it’s one measure of her early influence that, as young women, both Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn tried to copy her look.

Brilliantly intelligent and wonderfully gifted, Moreau was muse to most of the important directors of the second half of the 20th century, and even in old age, her voice ragged and her beauty ravaged — she’s still somehow beautiful. Men and women alike are powerless to resist her. How could another woman stand anywhere near her seductive presence?

In Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud

I have recently revised this opinion, based on some of the films of Moreau’s later career. She is, I believe, just about the best girlfriend any woman could ever hope to have.

Exhibit A is Nathalie Granger, a movie from 1972 now in rerelease here in Paris; I saw it the other night. In a country house in the Yvelines (hey! That’s where I live!), two sisters listen to radio reports of violent teenaged criminals in the Forest of Dreux (hey! That’s not far from my house!). Moreau and Lucia Bosé work in the garden. They pick up two little girls from school. Are these the daughters of one sister, or are they representations of the children these women used to be?

This dynamic clip from Nathalie Granger
is typical of the fast-paced drama: click to play.
(With Lucia Bosé)

There’s no answer to this, because Nathalie Granger is so self-consciously a product of its time. Most of the film is given over to enigmatic silences. The women sit and stare into space. They pace nervously through the house and the garden. They talk on the telephone, to no particular effect. The girls play piano. And that’s it.

Constant threats of violence never translate even to action, and nothing is every explained. It’s a ponderous intellectual exercise. If you took the time to break it down, the movie would probably mean something, but there’s no reason to think you’d give a damn once you decoded it.

What big cigarettes you have!
As the grandmother in François Ozon’s Le temps qui reste

The only breath of air in the picture is a startling comic turn from a tongue-tied, inept door-to-door salesman. Audiences today derive an additional pleasure from his scenes, because he’s played by Gérard Depardieu, young and handsome in a role that’s almost inconceivably far from the archetype he has become in the years since Nathalie Granger was made.

The other saving grace of the picture is Jeanne Moreau herself. Time spent in her company is not time wasted, even if she doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything. Of course, she is gorgeous. But beyond that, you find yourself focusing on her mystery: what is she thinking? Why did she do that? (Or, in this case, why isn’t she doing anything at all?) What will she do next?

With Brad Davis in Fassbinder’s Querelle
(She sings in this one, of course, and lest I forget,
Moreau also has enjoyed a successful recording career.)

To the mysteries of her presence, we add an artistic mystery: why did she agree to make this picture? Here, at least, we know the answer: the director was Marguerite Duras, a writer whose work Moreau admired. The women were friends, and since Duras’ death, Moreau has portrayed her onstage and on screen, burnishing Duras’ reputation by linking it to her own lustrous image.

Moreau as Duras in Cet amour là

Exhibit B is the career of director Josée Dayan. A mediocre talent of deeply conventional tastes, she is drawn to sprawling literary adaptations and period pieces. While there are (usually) incidental pleasures to be found in her films, she’s repeatedly proven herself incapable of shaping big structures, whether entire movies or set-piece scenes. To succeed, then, or just to get the necessary funding, she relies on the tony reputation of the novel or biography in question — and on the participation of Jeanne Moreau.

Sometimes these projects have afforded Moreau good opportunities as an actress. In Dayan’s adaptation of the life of Honoré de Balzac, for example, Moreau turned in a memorable portrait of the novelist’s mother, needy and nagging. But as a rule, Dayan’s films don’t advance Moreau’s reputation so much as they trade on it.

A scene from Dayan’s miniseries, Les Misérables,
with Depardieu (Valjean) and John Malkovich (Javert).
(Moreau plays a self-flagellating nun in this one.)

Thus, when Dayan decided she’d like to direct an opera, she enlisted Moreau as co-director. They chose Verdi’s Attila — another sprawling period piece, in which the chorus functions as the equivalent of a cinematic “cast of thousands.” For a first-time opera director, it’s rather like the amateur who says, “I’m not an architect, and in fact I’ve never even done anything like this, but I think I’ll build the Taj Mahal today.”

The results were disastrous, and an opportunity for Moreau was squandered. Her very real potential might have thrived in a smaller, more intimate opera — Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, for example, would benefit tremendously from her psychological insights into the drama. But that wasn’t Dayan’s vision, and Attila wound up looking like a vanity project. (Hard to argue that it wasn’t.) Who will ever entrust Dayan and Moreau with another opera?

In Truffaut’s Jules et Jim
(With the one who isn’t Oskar Werner)

At the age of 82, Moreau hardly needs to work at all, and her legend will survive just about anything. People will be talking about her for generations to come, much as we talk about Sarah Bernhardt. But every minute that Moreau worked with Dayan, she might have been working on something superior. Heaven knows, greater talents than Dayan’s would have given Moreau any opportunities she wanted — but she didn’t take them.

That’s loyalty, and it’s why I’ve come to believe that Jeanne Moreau is probably the best girlfriend ever.

In Truffaut’s La mariée était en noir

1 comment:

Amber said...

I would love to be friends with Jeanne Moreau. Just look at how she got along with the incredibly difficult Brigitte Bardot in Viva Maria!