One of the first pronouncements made by the young Fran?ois Truffaut when he started directing films was that he would never work with two of the great ladies of French cinema, Danielle Darrieux and Michelle Morgan. At the time, the late 1950s, this seemed astonishingly arrogant, like a snotty Guy Ritchie type banishing Judi Dench from the films he might yet make. While the French film establishment’s response to Truffaut may well have been “he should be so lucky,” in retrospect, his lofty exclusion of Darrieux and Morgan seems like one of the great decisions in modern cinema. Truffaut burnt his bridges and, for a time, the new wave followed him.
Truffaut’s reason for ruling out these two postwar grandes dames has always dazzled me. He said that their faces “influence too much the mise-en-sc?ne.” Their looks dictated the composition and the movements of the camera. So, instead, Truffaut cast Jeanne Moreau, who went on to make 110 films and counting. Orson Welles called her the “greatest actress in the world.” In a few short years in the early 1960s, she so rose to embody the new, liberated international style of filmmaking that, 40 years later, the BBC’s new, brainy arts channel BBC4 has launched with a season of her films.
Jeanne Moreau had read Racine by the age of ten, devoured Moli?re when the literary fashion was for the Left Bank, joined the Com?die Fran?aise and became a minor star in more than 20 movies of the 1950s, wearing make-up trowelled on, because that’s how it was done in those days and because she was considered unphotogenic. Then a young director, Louis Malle, who had worked with Jacques Cousteau, cast her in his debut feature Ascenseur pour L’?chafaud (1958) and asked his cinematographer Henri Deca? to film her without make-up and lit only by ambient light. The result was a revelation. Moreau looked beautiful and real, the film was like a documentary about her face. The new wave had found its intellectual muse.
Directors couldn’t get enough of her. Truffaut made Jules et Jim “of and for her.” Welles cast her five times. Luis Bu?uel gave her the title role in the Diary of a Chambermaid. Antonioni fetishised her walk in La Notte. She became Marguerite Duras’s representative on screen by acting in the film version of Moderato Cantabile, being directed by Duras in Nathalie Granger and playing Duras in the recent Cet Amour L? . Kazan, Fassbinder, Angelopoulos and Wenders also joined her list of auteur admirers.
Why is Moreau’s career more interesting than Deneuve’s, more lasting than Bardot’s? In Britain, Julie Christie looked as if she might last like her French role model, but didn’t. In the US, Jane Fonda had the attitude, but her ideas were too specific. Moreau was harder to pin down and the auteurs loved this. They pointed their cameras at her and their shots became more like thoughts than feelings. When she spoke the dialogue of Duras or Jean Claude Carri?re, she made the smart talk that helped movie making grow up.
She was good, in the Freudian sense, at forgetting. Moreau onscreen doesn’t harbour bad thoughts or useless desires. Her charm in Jules et Jim, the Welles films, and Malle’s Les Amants was her ability to jettison the past, to live in the rapturous present. Despite Racine and Moli?re, despite her relative disinterest in the events of 1968, she has always looked and sounded of the moment. She once said that her greatest achievement has been “to live without protection.”
Add forgetting to braininess and you get the bracing, edgy freedom of her best work. A quintet of films, Les Amants (59), Moderato Cantabile (60), La Notte (61), Jules et Jim (62), Eva (62) explore this theme. In the first three, Moreau plays an upper middle-class woman who feels trapped by marriage. In Les Amants, she has a night of passion with another man, is transformed and walks out on her life and her child. In the second, the situation is identical, though in Duras’s more pessimistic universe escape is not possible. In La Notte she ends the relationship. Neither Catherine in Jules et Jim nor the prostitute Eva could for a moment live like these three trapped women. Catherine is a Baudelairean fl?neuse, so free she tests everything to the limits; Eva is so unattached that she cannot feel the pain of others. Taken together, these five films, made in three short years, establish Moreau as the Simone de Beauvoir of cinema. Not since silent cinema star, Louise Brooks, had an actress so expressed the ideal of physical and emotional freedom.
I met Moreau recently in a restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, to do an interview to accompany the BBC4 season. At dinner, she told me that we were allowed to talk neither about cinema nor herself. I had sent her a postcard months before and she remembered precisely what it said. She is the first person I’ve interviewed who knew exactly the aims and format of my programme.
A few days later she arrived to talk. I showed her extracts of her “freedom quintet.” She spoke in detail for well over two hours, yet insisted on the mystery of acting. Talking to Moreau was like running through those fields in Jules et Jim, trying to pin her down, when that’s impossible.