Saturday, November 10, 2018

Vive La Moreau! Celebrating A French Icon

Femme Immortelle du Cinéma

Don Malcolm's MidCentury Productions will kick off its 5th festival of French film noir at San Francisco's venerable indie house, the Roxie Theater, on November 15. Each year the festival has grown, building on the excellence and success of the previous year, and so in 2018 the film schedule will, for the first time, span six days, all featuring eclectic, obscure and exciting French noir. Each festival has had a particular focus, and this year the spotlight will shine on twenty films made in France between 1949 and 1959, "The Frenetic Fifties." Click here for the full schedule, including program details, times and ticket information.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Several great stars of the French cinema appear in the films included on this year's "French Noir 5" program: Jean Gabin (of course), Simone Signoret, Danielle Darrieux, Arletty, Anouk Aimee...and Jeanne Moreau. Moreau, who passed away in July 2017 at age 89, will be honored at the festival on Friday night, November 16, with screenings of two of  her pre-New Wave pictures, Until the Last One/Jusqu'au Dernier and The She-Wolves/Les Louves. Both were released not long before she shot to prominence in young Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958).

In an age long past, when art and revival movie houses flourished in urban centers and university towns across the country, I saw my first Jeanne Moreau films. The very first was Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), the story of a doomed romantic triangle revolving around a beguiling and impulsive woman named Catherine (Moreau). Next came Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968), his experiment-in-pure-cinema homage to Hitchcock, in which a bride whose groom is gunned down on their wedding day methodically tracks down and dispatches his killers. And then came the film that initially launched Moreau and helped launch the French New Wave, Louis Malle's downbeat noir thriller Elevator to the Gallows.  I found her moody intensity riveting. By now I'd been keeping an eye out for her films.

Jeanne Moreau in the mid-1990s
Many years and many films later, Jeanne Moreau made a rare appearance on American television. It was November 27, 1994, when the 67-year old legend's conversation with veteran reporter Mike Wallace aired on 60 Minutes. The segment was aptly titled, "Femme Fatale." I'd love to watch that episode again, or read the transcript, but so far haven't been able to access either. I remember enough, though. I remember that she wore something feminine, if memory serves it was an elegant, silky dress, possibly with a wrap draped across her shoulders. She looked her age and she looked as though she'd lived, so I doubt there had been very much if any "face work" yet. She was worldly, charming, entirely self-possessed, and very attractive. I was profoundly impressed. And so was Mike Wallace who, during the course of their conversation, fell completely and openly under her spell. By the time the segment ended he was starry-eyed and all but drooling.


Moreau's biographer Marianne Gray went through a frustrating wrangle with the actress when she set out to write La Moreau in the 1990s. Moreau would cooperate with the writer and then withdraw, return to the project and retreat again. "What is this woman about?" Gray wrote in bewilderment, "She sheds characters like snakeskins..."

Jeanne Moreau, born in Monmartre in January 1928 to a French hotelier/restaurateur and a British-born Folies-Bergere dancer, began to don and shed characters long before she came of age. She'd decided to be an actress at 15 and, though her father violently disapproved, she never looked back. In 1946 she would audition for and be accepted into the France's venerated Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique. A serious student, she avidly dove into the classics. But Moreau was not only dedicated, she was also gifted. The following year, in 1947, she was chosen by Jean Vilar to make her stage debut at his inaugural Festival d' Avignon in Provence. Not long after Avignon, she was invited to become a member of the prestigious Comedie Francaise and would leave the conservatoire without graduating.

Moreau and Lino Ventura in Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
Jeanne Moreau would later turn down a long-term contract with the Comedie Francaise and move on to the Theatre Nationale Populaire, a repertory company. Eventually the ever independent Moreau, on the advice of Gerard Philipe, France's great leading man of that era, went freelance. Meanwhile, she'd been involved in radio work, made her first television appearance and continued to appear in a string of mostly secondary roles in French films. Though she would become an international screen legend, Moreau did not break through as a film actress nearly as quickly as she did in the theater. Within the film industry her looks were deemed "plain," "unattractive" and worse. Essentially, her slightly puffy, less that perfectly symmetrical face was not considered photogenic. And so, though her film roles grew to be more and more substantial, Jeanne Moreau would linger just short of film stardom for years.

In 1956 Moreau met with great success on the Paris stage as "Maggie the Cat" in a production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. One night, Fate in the form of a budding filmmaker in the theater audience named Louis Malle, stepped into her life.  They would meet and she would accept a lead role in his first feature film,  Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Her biographer Marianne Gray would write of the impact and importance of the actress's performance in this film, "Louis Malle...allowed her to move into the role of a woman rather than a girl, and a woman who had lived intensely and intelligently. Almost overnight their first film together made her the emblematic new woman of European cinema, a woman who could express universal emotions just through her face looking into the camera." Elevator to the Gallows would receive widespread acclaim and bring the same to both Moreau, then 30, and Malle, who was 25. The pair would make two more films together, The Lovers later in 1958 and Viva Maria! 1965.

It was her role as free-spirited Catherine, locus of the tragic love triangle in Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) that solidly established Moreau internationally. She was already in demand and had most recently starred opposite Marcello Mastrioanni in Antonioni's La Notte (1961). Now she would go on to Orson Welles' The Trial (1962), Luis Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid  (1964), John Frankenheimer's The Train (1962)  with Burt Lancaster, Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1965), Tony Richardson's controversial  Mademoiselle (1966), Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968) and the rest of her daunting filmography. She would never really stop acting, completing her final film in 2015. She would also venture into writing and directing her own films, including Lumiere (1976) and The Adolescent (1979). Along the way Jeanne Moreau would be nominated for and win countless international awards, notably a Best Actress at Cannes in 1965 and an honorary Palme d'Or there in 2003. She was also honored by AMPAS with a lifetime tribute held in October 1998.

Moreau was married twice. Her first husband was actor/writer/director Jean-Louis Richard (Oscar-nominated in 1975 for his screenplay for Truffaut's Day for Night) whom she knew at the conservatoire. They married in September 1949, a day before their son, Jerome, was born. The pair would separate two years later but remain lifelong friends. She was involved with Louis Malle, Pierre Cardin and Tony Richardson - who left his wife, Vanessa Redgrave, for her - among others, before marrying director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) in 1977; the two divorced in 1979. Of amour Moreau would observe, "Age does not protect you from love, but love, to some extent, protects you from age." Is it any surprise that even at 67, La Moreau could have so completely enraptured a hard-nosed investigative reporter like 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace?


On Friday night, November 16, The French Had a Name for It 5 at San Francisco's Roxie Theater will bow in tribute to Moreau with two films noir of hers from 1957, Until the Last One/Jusqu'au Dernier and The She-Wolves/Les Louves. Both films make plain just how ready she was for the fame that was on her near horizon. Until the Last One, a "big top noir," features Moreau as the dancer in a bedraggled circus who falls for a thief on the run; everyone on this seedy scene is out to get their hands on the loot the man stole from fellow thieves. The She-Wolves induces both chills and the creeps, which is no surprise since it was written by Boileau and Narcejac, the fellows who penned Diabolique and the source novel for Vertigo. In this one, Moreau seduces a soldier who's escaped a German POW camp, taken on a dead soldier's identity and pursues the dead man's through-the-mail romance - with her sister. A fateful error, it turns out.

Jeanne Moreau and Raymond Pellegrin, Jusqu'au Dernier, French noir from 1957

La Moreau by Marianne Gray (Donald I. Fine, 1996)
The Washington Post, obituary for Jeanne Moreau, July 31, 2017


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