On Friday, after the retrospective Jeanne Moreau, Actrice wraps on Thursday, New York’s Film Forum will launch Jeanne Moreau, Cinéaste, a weeklong presentation of new restorations of the three features directed by one of the titans of French cinema. Threes, as it happens, are a running motif. In Lumière (1976), Moreau plays Sarah Dedieu, a renowned actress adroitly balancing relationships with three dissimilar men. In The Adolescent (1979), a twelve-year-old girl invites a thirty-year-old doctor to usher her into womanhood, unaware (at first) that he’s embroiled in a passionate affair with her mother. And in Lillian Gish (1984), essentially an hour-long interview with cutaways to clips and photos, the ghost of D. W. Griffith looms over Moreau and the silent-era legend.
Lumière opens at an opulent Italian villa, the home of Laura (Lucia Bosè), an actress on equal footing with Sarah and a lifelong friend. They’re joined in the sun-kissed pool and then later over lunch by two younger, lesser-known actresses, Julienne (Francine Racette) and Caroline (Caroline Cartier). Together, the four women look back on the previous year, when they were all in Paris and “everything changed in less than a week.”
Sarah’s beau at the time was Thomas (Francis Huster), a much younger man who’s directing the film she’s working on. She seems to find his insecurity irritating, so it’s likely that the days of this affair are numbered. She periodically calls Grégoire (François Simon), a cancer researcher, to draw him out of his lab and drag him to social functions that make his skin crawl. But he accompanies her out of a deep, genuine, and utterly platonic love. Sarah’s latest flame is Heinrich Grün, a German poet and novelist played with a haunting, nearly silent yearning by Bruno Ganz. This affair may well have legs.
Sarah has asked all three men as well as her three actress friends to attend a ceremony where she will be presented with a lifetime achievement award. “Moreau as a filmmaker is less vain than honest in presenting herself as a universally admired professional,” notes J. Hoberman in the New York Times. About a week after Moreau died in 2017, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody called for the revival of Lumière, which he argued deserved to be “discussed alongside the classics by other directors in which she performed . . . Surprisingly, refreshingly, and revealingly, for a movie made by an actor in which that actor stars, it’s no bravura showcase, no feast of technique or display of virtuosity; it’s a calm, lyrical melodrama with an air of lightness and grace, a survivor’s story.”
For some, The Adolescent will be the standout of the three features. Roger Ebert wasn’t alone in being reminded of Jean Renoir, and others may find faint hints of Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) in Moreau’s depiction—albeit radically different in tone—of a tightly knit community in a provincial village. Introduced like sitcom regulars caught on the move who then beam into the camera—Moreau wasn’t averse to very occasionally employing narrative tropes that would have been considered hokey even at the time; Lillian Gish opens with an “Oh, hi” moment that’s supposed to play as if we had just happened upon the French icon as she prepares to head out to the Gish estate—these villagers are fully rounded characters but also types: the motherly milk maid, the town drunk, the young lovers refused permission to marry but who have nonetheless produced what the locals refer to in whispers as the “bastard.”
It’s the summer of 1939, and all of France is chattering about Germany’s inevitable invasion. Young Marie (Laetitia Chauveau, appearing in her only film) has arrived in the village with her parents (Jacques Weber and Edith Clever), ready to frolic with her playmates and have heart-to-hearts with her closest summertime friend. Sex is in the air. Her parents can’t keep their hands off of each other, and Marie and her friends play like puppies sniffing each other out and sensing those first inklings.
Sovereign yet endearing, Mamie, Marie’s grandmother (Simone Signoret), oversees the channels of communication in the village, ensuring that everyone knows only as much as they need to know about what everyone else is up to—and that, if they do indeed know more than they should, that they’ll keep quiet about it. Superstitions endure here. When someone dies, you cover the mirrors. If you need two people to fall back in love, there’s a witch out in the verdant woods with a potion for that. Pierre Gautard’s cinematography is so transporting one wishes that Marie’s life-changing summer will never end, but of course, it does as it must—with dark portent.
Moreau was a serious student of cinema, not only honing her craft as an actor and director but also reading up on the lives of major figures who shaped the art. In the 1980s, she hosted a series of radio programs on Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, and in the summer of 1983, she flew to New York to talk with Lillian Gish. Gently. Moreau’s admiration is clearly sincere, and she has not come to grill Gish on her role in one of the most notorious films of all time, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Moreau and Gish do broach the topic of the film’s reputation nearly seventy years on, but both women seem eager to move on once they briefly acknowledge that Griffith would likely have depicted his Black characters differently in 1983. Gish, whose wide-set eyes are as radiant at the age of eighty-nine as they were in the 1910s and ’20s, suggests that Griffith, a demanding workaholic, made a crucial error when welding together four perfectly fine standalone films to make Intolerance (1916).
The clips, especially one from Way Down East (1920) in which Gish floats on an ice floe gliding swiftly toward a waterfall, are a reminder of Griffith’s reckless vision and her own devotion to it. She has a message from Griffith that she aims to get across in Moreau’s film. Silent film and music are universal languages with a utopian potential of uniting people around the world. Combined, they are a force for global peace and—Gish emphasizes this twice—“I want it back.”
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