by Gary Meyer
“The cliché is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.” * Jeanne Moreau
In 1964 I convinced some friends to drive with me to Berkeley for a double feature of LA NOTTE and JULES AND JIM at the Cinema on Shattuck. I remember that this group of 15-year-olds, puzzled and often bored with Antonioni’s tale of alienation argued about the film and whether to stay for the co-feature. We read Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review posted in the lobby. It let us know that it was acceptable to be confused and even bored by LA NOTTE.
There was no doubt that the lead actress, Jeanne Moreau was special. Her performance had been riveting (though she later said she did not like the role) and one could not stop looking at her. She was not what might be considered a traditional beauty but the screen smoldered when she was on it, often changing from scene to scene.
There were no reviews posted in the lobby for JULES AND JIM but I knew enough about it to convince everybody to give it a try. It promised to be a sexy romantic period piece. The movie started out in a light mood: romantic and funny. When Moreau’s Catherine entered the story it was easy to understand how Jules and Jim could both immediately fall in love with this intelligent and sensual free spirit. We fantasized joining the two men in this desire, despite the outcome.
She was really something and I returned to view the film a few days later.
There was no Internet and very few books about foreign movies but I needed to see more Jeanne Moreau even if I could not read much about her. I realized she had been in Carl Foreman’s American studio World War II film THE VICTORS earlier in the year.
Luckily Mel Novikoff’s Surf Theatre in San Francisco played a lot of “Nouvelle Vague” films and that summer I caught up with Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (with its incredible Miles Davis score) and THE LOVERS, Roger Vadim’s LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, Peter Brook’s MODERATO CANTABILE, Jacques Demy’s BAY OF ANGELS and her first film of four with Orson Welles, THE TRIAL.
And the next year several new films were released—foreign titles getting their delayed U.S. showings—Joseph Losey’s EVA and Luis Bunuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID plus a new Malle film co-starring Brigitte Bardot, VIVA MARIA!
Two Hollywood hits, John Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN and Anthony Asquith’s star-studded THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE, followed.
I doubted I was the only young American who was smitten with this actress who so completely transformed herself from film to film. And each demanded multiple viewings because the first time I just fixated on Jeanne. Subsequent screenings might allow me to pay attention to the rest of the film, but there was no guarantee of escaping her spell.
She kept acting well into her eighties in 140 films; one of her last parts was in a TV series LE TOURBILLON DE JEANNE (2013) that looks very interesting but is unseen in the U.S. as were many of her movies.
“Moreau’s own face was more round than oval, but her beauty always had a stunningly fatale quality, perhaps most obviously in the dark circles under her eyes. She was certainly, for me, more vivid in Jules et Jim than, say, Anna Karina in Godard’s Bande à Part in 1964. Her beauty is more restless, more piercing, more discriminating and in a way more detached. She always looks as if she could walk out of the screen, and away into some other story,” Peter Bradshaw eloquently wrote in The Guardian.
Years after she sang Le Tourbillon in JULES AND JIM, Jeanne recorded and sang it on French television.
The first time I saw her in person was at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival but it was a fleeting moment when she emerged from a party with Louis Malle, Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
But it was at the 1974 San Francisco International Film Festival that I really first experienced her in person. She attended a marathon Tribute that included screenings of several of her films, two hours of clips and an extended onstage conversation.
Jennifer Preissel wrote about the event for the SIFF website. “At Moreau’s press conference she explained to reporters how she became a film actress. She had initially wanted to be a dancer, but when she realized she did not have the talent for it, she decided upon a career in acting. After a six-month stint in drama school, she auditioned for the Comédie–Française production of A Month in the Country and, at the age of 20, won the part of Natacha. She performed with the company for four years before moving on to the Théâtre Nationale Populaire. Garnering acclaim on the stage, she began acting in films. Moreau admitted at a Festival press conference, ‘I didn’t know anything about films, because I was not allowed to see films or read newspapers by my father’.”
There she was on the stage and then at a reception after. I was briefly introduced and, rare for me, was tongue-tied. A brief “Thank you” from me earned a wonderful smile and “Thank you too” and then she moved on to be introduced to the city’s high society figures.
The following year I joined some friends to start Landmark Theatres (first known as Repertory Theatres Inc.). We mostly operated historic single screen theaters showing double features, changing the program 3-7 times a week. As we moved into the 1980s home video became well established and people could rent most classic films to watch at home. Clearly this was having a negative impact on repertory cinema and we needed to create original programming only available at our theaters.
One concept was to approach the national film offices in various countries to allow us to curate a series of movies that had been passed over by U.S. distributors but were terrific work that should be seen. Who knows why excellent movies do not get released here while mediocre, even terrible ones reach cinemas?
Unifrance was the first to respond and we selected twelve French titles, some featuring top performers and directors. The package toured our theaters in the West, Midwest and South. Films got reviewed and audience feedback helped a four films be reconsidered and obtain proper theatrical releases.
The French were thrilled and invited me to come to Paris and screen films for consideration. L’ADOLESCENTE, Jeanne Moreau’s follow-up to her directorial debut LUMIERE and starring Simone Signoret was one and we invited it to be part of our second season. The response in our theaters was terrific and we offered to buy the U.S. rights for our fledgling Landmark Films distribution venture.
As we often broke some rules of exhibition, so would we distributing this movie.
I convinced Don Rugoff to book it into his prestigious Baronet for a Sunday opening contrary to industry wisdom for Fridays. Sept. 11, 1982 was the week after Labor Day. In the early 1980s that was considered no-man’s-land and few films premiered in September. We hoped to take advantage of that vacuum and open a quality movie.
Exhibition and distribution veterans urged us to hire Renne Furst—the doyenne of New York art film publicists. She worked on many French films and often handled Signoret PR. We had great respect for her but she was out of our league.
We liked the smart upstart, Reid Rosefelt who was a rebel like us. After working on many releases at New Yorker Films, he set up his own shop, doing inspiring work on many independent and foreign films. He worked his magic for L’ADOLESCENTE and got plenty of coverage, not always in conventional ways.
We had a great interview with Signoret set for Sunday but had no idea what the NY Times’ lead critic Janet Maslin thought about the movie. The feature piece should result in a strong opening Sunday (and save us big Friday-Saturday advertising costs with a small advance teaser in Friday’s paper and a quarter page ad on Sunday). Word-of-mouth looked to be very good based on some advance screenings. If we got a positive review on Monday it would propel the film to solid weekdays and through a terrific weekend.
Maslin gave it a very good review and our hopes proved true. Attendance was terrific and the public loved the movie. We made a flyer of the review to hand out to customers before upcoming openings and during those engagements. Theater programmers started calling to book the movie but we took our time making sure each city was properly promoted. There is a tendency in the film business to open too fast when a movie is a success in New York. Today, because of the Internet, that is a valid concern but then it was essential for us to plan each move carefully.
Moreau had previously committed to a NY Times piece in October for Losey’s THE TROUT and we hoped that might help keep the momentum going. A month later, as planned that article appeared in the NY Times containing considerable copy about L’ADOLESCENTE, even mentioning that it was at the Baronet. We then created an inexpensive one sheet reprinting this article for upcoming theaters to post.
Reid Rosefelt says, “In 1982, I got a call from Gary Meyer of Landmark Films offering me the job of publicizing Jeanne Moreau’s L’ADOLESCENTE, her second film as director. He gave me her phone number and told me to call her. One of the most surreal moments in my life to that point was dialing her number and hearing her unmistakable voice a few seconds later. She picked up her own damned phone! I don’t know why that surprised me. It was the beginning of a grand adventure, hanging out in NY with cinema legend Moreau for a few days while filmmaker Sara Driver (my then assistant!) and I shepherded her around her publicity paces for a few days. Jeanne worked hard—the film was important to her. I remember feeling like a king at Le Cirque, sitting at her side, downing the first chocolate covered strawberry of my life. I never mentioned that I had been obsessed with her since my teens; carrying a picture of her in JULES AND JIM to every apartment I lived in…. RIP Jeanne.”
Jeanne agreed to a modest national press tour for us and was incredibly helpful, wanting people to discover her movie. Roger Ebert’s rave review on Siskel and Ebert’s “At the Movies” was a major booster.
The West Coast Premiere was at the Mill Valley Film Festival. My wife Cathy was doing San Francisco PR for the film with Mill Valley leading to the bay area openings. She remembers “I got to spend some time with her when she was in SF promoting her film. Wickedly sly and funny, very little diva-like behavior, and supportive of a very pregnant moi!” (with our daughter Emily)
She was happy with a casual dinner and a request to go shopping at Cost Plus, a surprisingly popular stop for many celebrities in those days. And we could listen to her raspy voice endlessly though seemed as interested in us as we were in her.
At Landmark Theaters we programmed Moreau/Signoret double feature retrospectives in our repertory cinemas to publicize the upcoming opening of L’ADOLESCENTE.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS with DIABOLIQUE
THE LOVERS and THERESE RAQUIN
JULES AND JIM plus LA RONDE
TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI with CASQUE D’OR
BAY OF ANGELS plus ROOM AT THE TOP
In a few larger cities the tributes would be expanded to include several more double features pairing two works starring Moreau under the direction of Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, François Truffaut, Peter Brook, Joseph Losey and some of her collaborations with her good friend Marguerite Duras.
After that I met with her in Cannes a few times and finally in Paris at a Cinémathèque Française Tribute, February 6, 2008. Read Serge Toubiana’s superb Tribute essay that suggests “What Jeanne Moreau brought to this (New Wave) generation of filmmakers is first of all the audacity, the courage to innovate, to take risks, to free oneself from the weight of the cinematographic technique. Dare to film true.”
At the opening of the Tribute. In French w/o subtitles
She was always welcoming and appreciative of how well the movie did in the U.S.
Jeanne graciously signed the original French poster on that first visit to SF and my copy of La Moreau at the book launch in the mid 1990s at a Cannes reception for this biography.
Jeanne would probably not approve of these memories. In her later life she made it clear that she was not fond of nostalgia. In a sharp and funny 2001 interview with The Guardian she said, “The life you had is nothing. It is the life you have that is important.”
* Quote from a 2001 interview with Alan Riding of The New York Times
Explore more about Jeanne Moreau. Many terrific tributes have been written in the week after her death.
The Criterion Channel on FilmStruck features a “Remembering Jeanne Moreau” selection of her classics and beautiful transfers are on Criterion Collection DVDs and BluRays with special features..
A. O. Scott looks at François Truffaut’s meditation on love, friendship, and sexuality.
“This is ridiculous, I told myself. You’ve interviewed Ingmar Bergman. Robert Mitchum. John Wayne. You got through those okay. Why should you be scared of Jeanne Moreau? Simply because she’s the greatest movie actress of the last 20 years? Simply because she’s made more good films for great directors than anybody else? Simply because something in her face and manner has fascinated you since you sat through “Jules and Jim” twice in a row? She’s only human; it’s not like she’s a goddess.” The opening of Roger Ebert’s lovely tribute to the movie star and director.
“A master at modulating her moods, Moreau was also an expert at modulating her voice, which ranged from silky whisper to a Gauloises-cured growl. The voice she used for a role told everything about the class and education or her characters. Yet because of her extraordinarily expressive face and body language, Moreau didn’t require dialogue to convey a character’s emotions.” Carrie Rickey offers an adoring Tribute on “Indiewire.”
An excerpt from an interview with Jeanne Moreau on “The Representation of Women On-Screen” from the Criterion Collection edition of Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS.
“Jeanne Moreau and I got off to a rocky start. Who knew it would last a lifetime. It was always one-sided, of course, with her up there on the screen, and me in the dark, watching. Nevertheless, I persisted.” Malcolm Jones explains his infatuation on “The Daily Beast”
“It was impossible to know Jeanne Moreau without being enthralled, excited, impressed and quite certain that you were in the presence of someone who knows more about the world than you do. Deep experience of life and love defined her screen persona and exuded from her every pore, and serious wisdom came along with that. More than anyone I’ve ever known, she convinced me that nothing in human experience was foreign to her, a quality that served her magnificently in life and work.” Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for “The Hollywood Reporter,” on his adventures with Moreau in Hollywood during the release of her first film as a director, LUMIERE.
“Few actors have worked in cinema across eight decades. Jeanne Moreau began her career as an ingenue in 1949, and for my generation she was the icon of the French New Wave. Moreau brought to the screen a singular, inimitable verve, a petulance, and a shameless gaze. Her range was extraordinary” Peter Cowie writes about his interview with Jeanne Moreau.
Jeanne Moreau sings Le Tourbillon (aka The Whirlwind of Life) in JULES AND JIM, La Vie de Cocagne, Le Blues Indolent and reads Cet Amour by Jacques Prévert.
And listen to many more from her record albums
“She was a classic movie star, constantly shape-shifting: now with blonde hair, now with a dark bob, now with a chignon, now soaking wet in the rain. All her characters have an I-don’t-owe-you-anything attitude which sets Moreau apart from other quintessentially French movie stars, like Catherine Deneuve or Brigitte Bardot. Moreau plays a woman who might turn you into the police, or gamble away all your money, or have her boyfriend kill you—or make you drive off the road, killing you both. Her characters are charming and terrifying. And every one of them is resolutely free.” Lauren Elkin remembers Jeanne Moreau on “Prospect”
“The idea of Jeanne Moreau is as great as the onscreen presence of Jeanne Moreau because, in her performances, she embodied ideas in motion, and, for that matter, one big idea: Moreau, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-nine, was a grande dame without haughtiness or prejudice. Her grandeur didn’t erect walls around her; it widened her vistas, increased her curiosity, enabled her adventures, overcame narrow boundaries. She was a queen of intellect—but an intellect that was no cloistered bookishness but an idea and an ideal of culture that enriched experience, envisioned progress, looked ardently at the times.” Richard Brody in “The New Yorker”
Hans Ulrich Obrist, on “AnOther,” offers “a fascinating interview because she not only talks about the films she has done, but she says that for an actress, the films that one decides not to do are just as important. It was a mesmerising experience to meet Jeanne, and find her so young in spirit. Jeanne is forever young. She is not sentimental. She always looks forward to the future, yet she has encountered some of the great human beings of the 20th century. Ingmar Bergman, Anaïs Nin, Jean Genet, Henry Miller amongst countless others. As well as being one of the most celebrated actresses of our time, she reads, sings, writes, reads… The world of Jeanne Moreau has many dimensions. It’s a little like superstring theory.”
The fashion world comments on “Women’s Wear Daily.” With fashion photo gallery.
Dan Callahan has some thoughts and a 2001 interview discussing her directors as lovers on “Balder and Dash.”
“How annoyed I get to hear people speak of ‘the profession of acting. The only thing worse is when they say, ‘You’re a real pro.’ Acting is not a profession at all; it’s a way of living — one completes the other.
What an actor needs is a sense of involvement, an unconscious familiarity with his role, nothing more than that. There’s no point in pursuing the character’s real-life experience. It’s absurd to think you can truly enter it for a tame little week, anyhow. I never study my role at all before the camera starts turning and then pffft! —it begins.” From a “Time Magazine” interview
The British Film Institute offers 10 Essential Films of Jeanne Moreau.
And so many more wonderful essays and interviews collected by David Hudson at [The Daily].