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Opinion

August 12, 2017

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Remembering Jeanne Moreau

Remembering Jeanne Moreau

With too much being written about politics, a diversion is in order this weekend. The death of Jeanne Moreau last week gave many an excuse to watch some of her old movies. Talking about French actresses in the 20th century, you inevitably end up discussing Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau.

If Bardot was pure lust and Deneuve was sheer elegance, Moreau was a combination of both. Jeanne Moreau died last week just six months short of her 90th birthday and left behind a long list of memorable movies made during the past 60 years, both in English and in French.

She emerged on the European stage in the 1940s and then on celluloid in the 1950s, enchanting audiences and cine viewers with her effortless charm. Post-war Europe – and France, in particular – was a dreary place. Italian neorealism was producing films such Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine that depicted the agony of poverty in its raw form. From Hollywood, film noir was dominating the scene, with its corruption and treachery. In this situation, the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) was about to knock at the cinematic darkrooms and smash the traditions of filmmaking.

In that period, leading up to the New Wave, there emerged an actress and a director – Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malle – who would set the tone for French cinema in the decades to come. Having an English dancer for mother and a French barman as father, Jeanne inherited a perpetually intoxicated look with the graceful moves of a peacock.

She had seen the travails of the Nazi occupation and discovered her love for literature and theatre during that gloomy period. Starting with B-movies and reluctant to make herself up as titillating heroines do, she struck up an acquaintance with a first-time director who was looking for the natural attributes that she had.

Her breakthrough film, Elevator to the Gallows, was directed by Malle in 1957. This suspense thriller was an example of the ‘theatre of the absurd’ whose one proposition is that in this world nothing is likely to happen as expected. In this film, Jeanne Moreau’s character is in love with her rich husband’s business assistant and encourages him to kill his boss in such a way that it looks like suicide. The boss is duly murdered but the lover-murderer is stuck in the elevator when the power is switched off by the guards. Jeanne waits for her lover while wandering around the city for the whole night before being apprehended by the police.

Most of the shots of Jeanne Moreau are in close-up, without makeup and in natural light, making her an icon of French films. She acted unflatteringly simple and this became her hallmark. Malle, who was just 25 years old, brought out the best in Moreau and made her a star. In this way, Malle had emulated the feat accomplished by Orson Welles, who had directed his masterpiece Citizen Kane at the same age in 1940. With the commercial success and critical acclaim of this murder-mystery film, Jeanne became Malle’s favourite actress and off-screen lover.

Then in 1958, the couple collaborated to film a steamy tale, The Lovers, about the extramarital affair of a bored housewife, beautifully played by Jeanne, who earned her moniker as ‘the new Bardot’ by breaking taboos against on screen eroticism. The Lovers was a modern version of Madame Bovary. A bored wife drives off with a virtual stranger and has an erotic escapade in a garden, then in a boat and finally in her bedroom while her husband is in another room. It was so daring for its time that it was considered obscene even in America and could be screened only when the US Supreme Court intervened.

In this case, American Justice Potter Stewart made his famous pronouncement concerning what was pornography: “I know it when I see it, and this picture is not that”. But her first major international success was Jules et Jim (1962), which was directed by François Truffaut. Based on a semiautobiographical novel by French author, Henri-Pierre Roche (1879 – 1959), the film became a sensation.

Interestingly, Jules et Jim, the first of Roche’s only two novels, was published in 1953, when he was 74. This may serve as a ray of hope for aging journalists who forever want to write a novel but never succeed and give up when they are over sixty.

The film was set during the First World War and depicted a love triangle between Moreau’s character with two friends –Jules and Jim– who vied for her love. Moreau’s performance in this film is considered to be one of the best performances by any French actress. Since she was also a vocalist, she sang a beautiful song with mellifluous French intonations in Jules et Jim. Now the French New Wave was striding in European cinema. The path that was inaugurated by Malle was now treaded by Truffaut, Resnais, and Godard.

All these directors were early followers of the auteur theory. According to this theory, certain directors dominate their films to such an extent that they virtually become the authors of the film. Jeanne’s next tour de force was Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). The chambermaid, played by Jeanne Moreau, has a new job in the country with a group of rich but strange people. The landlady is a frigid woman with a raunchy husband and a father who is obsessed with women’s shoes and keeps them as a fetish. The movie – directed by the Spanish director, Bunuel –is not only an indictment of the rich but also exposes the fascist tendencies in the working class.

Jeanne Moreau’s prime time was for a decade –from the late 1950s to the late 1960s–and she also appeared in several Hollywood films such as Orson Welles’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial and in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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