Editor's Note: I asked friends around the world to recall the first Jeanne Moreau movie they ever saw ....and anything else they wanted to recall.....
In my first year with the Vancouver International Film Festival, back in 1986, I was a volunteer working in the office. I knew one of the guests that year was going to be Jeanne Moreau, and, like any young Canadian film nut, l was greatly looking forward to going to the tribute screening of L'Adolescente, seeing her in the flesh, and hearing her speak. "Maybe I could even talk to her", I thought... One day in the office, I heard someone gasp, looked up, and there was Jeanne Moreau carrying a tray. "Who wants a coffee?" said the goddess of French cinema. She put down the tray of coffee cups, pulled up a chair, lit a cigarette, and started asking us about who we were, how we were, and what we did for the festival. She was unbelievably down to earth, quick to laugh, and just plain wonderful. And here's the kicker: she brought us coffee and sat down for a chat and a few cigarettes every morning for the duration of her visit. In my 31 years at VIFF, no guest has even come close to matching her generosity of spirit and genuine curiosity about other people's lives (well, Betty Comden and Adolph Green came pretty close, actually). I still wonder if I dreamt the whole thing...
|Moreau as Catherine in Jules and Jim|
... one afternoon in Paris, after returning from London where I had been looking for funding and “casting” for a new film project, I was taken by the hand, almost literally, by a well-experienced agent lady to the apartment of the Icon herself. I had met the agent in a dinner at John Kobal’s* house in London a few weeks earlier where he was cooking spaghetti for a few good friends. We talked about my “casting” woes, me with all of 25ish years of naïveté and dreams, at the very cosy and relaxed table with well-seasoned pros and legends (Paul Morrissey was as happy with John’s pasta as I was). Between the salade and the pasta, not only did John come up with the incredible coincidence of having just returned from the home of the German actor top on my wish list (some weeks later I had the surreal feeling of this person coming down from the screen and walking through my front door, just as the scene in a PopEye cartoon that most impressed me as a kid: PopEye came out of his frame and took a can of spinach from the hands of a kid in the cinema), but the famous agent also joined in the enthusiastic chorus to suggest asking the Icon, the “Catherine” of my childhood, for the role of the mother in the story of a complicated father-mother-daughter relationship in an English family in Paris in the 1900’s. “It’d be perfect, her mother was English, you know that,” says she.
That’s how, one afternoon in Paris, this 20-something Hong-Kong-born Canada-schooled ex-student and new-filmmaker, was face to face with the Icon who also seemed to have, surrealistically, walked down from the screen of the Jules and Jim which so impressed me while I was of an age to get to every single European film offered by the ciné-club at the Hong Kong City Hall. The agent lady had brought me there, having called earlier in the day, very excited, saying that my idol, indeed the Catherine in Jules and Jim, had read the script, agreed to do it and wanted to meet me.
If Jeanne was shocked to find herself with a potential “director” all of 25 years of age, a shy awkward Asian girl, too pretty to be taken seriously (I remember distinctly having worn a violet gypsy skirt which had a great swinging movement, with a sheer pastel purple tunic top over a body stocking very popular that year, a look that was decidedly “young film student”), she had the grace and elegance not to show it at all. Instead she spoke in a very sisterly feminist manner, talking about the films she had directed: Lumière (Light) and l’Adolescente (The Adolescent Girl), saying in these frank words, “I was a success because as a woman, I managed to find the financial support and direct these films, but I was also a failure because these films didn’t find their audience and didn’t succeed at the box office.” Then indeed, I talked about Marguerite Duras and India Song, she sprang to her feet, half-whispering half-gasping “wait!”, ran to the next room and came back with a 45’ record...
you who don’t want to say anything
you who talk to me about her
and you who tell me everything...
you who told me about her
of her forgotten name
of her body, of my body
of this particular love
of this love long dead...”
It was a record of Carlos d’Alessio’s music which also contains her rendition of the song not in the film itself. “It’s for you”, she says, thrusting it into my hands.
|Moreau, Henri Serre, Jules and Jim|
A full circle was closed from the Jules and Jim of the City Hall ciné-club screenings where “Catherine” haunted my nights through the months before the heartbreaking departure from my birthplace of Hong Kong, to this instant standing on the impeccably-polished wooden floor of the apartment off the Champs-Elysées, with the mythical “Catherine” in flesh and blood calling herself my “sister-in-arms”, insisting on a solidarity between women who were mad and brave enough to enter this male bastion of film directing and producing.
(*) John Kobal : The last year of University in Montreal before I left, in the film program in which I majored, there was a special guest lecturer for “Hollywood musicals” which I had always loved. A renowned specialist in the genre, John Kobal, a native Canadian who had settled in London for many decades, famous for books and his incredible collection of photographs of Hollywood stars, was the guest. For his last evening class, my classmates and I organised a small party in the basement of my parents’ home, where he was invited for drinks. My friends and I arranged to put on a record of a well-known Fred Astaire song as soon as John arrived at the house, I was waiting at the foot of the stairs in an evening gown to sweep John into a Fred and Ginger dance number. Delighted, John signed his book “Gotta Sing Gotta Dance” for me and wrote on the first page, “thanks for making my last night so joyful” which was a typical naughty John wink adding a little spice and mystery for anyone who would open the book afterwards.
|Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin, Moreau, Touchez-pas au Grisbi|
|Jean Gabin, Moreau, Gas-Oil|
Her charisma was fully evident well before the Nouvelle Vague. I recently saw her in the under-rated GAS-OIL (Gilles Grangier, 1955) and she stole every one of her scenes from Jean Gabin who seemed even more impassive and dyspeptic than usual in her presence.
|Moreau, L'ascenseur a l'échafaud|
I first saw Jeanne Moreau in Jacques Becker’s TOUCHEZ-PAS AU GRISBI in which she played a gangster’s moll with a sultry sexuality. I was fortunate enough to meet her in San Francisco in the mid-70s when the first film she directed, LUMIERE, played there at the film festival. She was a powerful off-screen presence, almost always wreathed in cigarette smoke. Her roles in LES AMANTS, JULES ET JIM, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, BAY OF ANGELS and others are pretty unforgettable.
Well my brush with greatness came when I was in the foyer of Langlois' Chaillot Cinémathèque where typically he had programed two two and a half hour movies in two two hour spots and the crowd was milling about waiting for The Shanghai Gesture to start. Everyone was staring in my direction and I thought I must have been wearing odd socks until I looked at the other end of the bench I was on and realised Jeanne Moreau was sitting there. Best we ever got at the London NFT was Alan Cuthbertson giving his dismissive Jack Wales look at anyone who recognised him.
It wasn't just that she was dead sexy (Mimsy Farmer with her new nose in More did more damage to my libido) but Jeanne Moreau incarnated the era's new movie sophistication - Cahiers/Positif/Présence du Cinema, New Wave, Cinémathèque, May '68. That was a great load of associations and she carried them so nicely - particularly for someone whose first language was English.
Jules and Jim was of course the first time I saw her, sometime in 1963 at the Australia Cinema in Collins Street, Melbourne. It seemed revelatory at the time. Two guys besotted with a fre-spirited woman. I went back and saw it again, a rare occurrence. It was the first New Wave movie I had seen. Moreau appearances came frequently after that, La Notte, The Trial and then the really exciting one, Louis Malle’s Les Amants where she took a bath with the lover she has picked up on the road and then ran away with him. The censor deprived us of part of the scene.
|Jean-Paul Belmondo, Moreau, Moderato Cantabile|
My goodness, a quick look at Wikipedia and you are reminded of more Welles, more Truffaut, Bunuel, Jacques Demy, John Frankenheimer, Jean Renoir, Tony Richardson, Duras herself, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey (twice), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Theo Angelopoulos, Wim Wenders, Tsai Ming-liang, Vincent Ward and Manoel de Oliveira. It must have been quite something going to work each day. Fabulous. Luminous. Utterly unforgettable.
|Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Anthony Perkins|