Jeanne Moreau at 48

I met Jeanne Moreau at noon, in an empty room of the French Film Office, which had organized her visit to New York. She wore a girlish silk smock and funny little shepherdess shoes that laced around the ankle, rings, pendants, a smudge of eye shadow, and some mascara. Her cheeks and lips were naked, as were her legs, which, it seemed, she hadn't shaved. Her knee wore an ace bandage from a fall the night before. She had spent the morning getting xrays but seemed neither tired nor tense. She was tanned, small, and relaxed, with excellent posture. She was 48, but I kept forgetting to notice whether she looked young or old.

This was about six weeks ago. Moreau was here for the Women's Film Festival, which opened with Lumiere, her directorial debut. Lumiere is about women's friendships and, after a while, I asked if she could compare it as such to Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim, a film about a friendship between men. (It was as Catherine in that film that Moreau really became an international star.) She took this as a yes/no question, agreed in spurts, and finally seemed amazed. "The character of the woman," she added, "is very simple and not chauvinistic."

Jules and Jim are intellectuals whose ideal in woman is a statue. They find her human counterpart, Catherine, but she won't stay on her pedestal and finally separates the friends in the only way possible, murder (at the cost of her own suicide). I suggested that Truffaut's vision of Catherine might be misogynistic.

Jeanne Moreau's face fell. British on her mother's side, she speaks excellent but not perfect English. I had used a word that she didn't know, and she looked ashamed. Once I paraphrased, she answered easily, "How can a man do otherwise?" Then, in a way that I was to find characteristic, she gradually, almost dreamily, reconsidered. "And when I say it was true to the character of the woman, I was speaking of how I felt at the time. Though I resented it very much! I resented the ending because she had no choice. The choice was: Okay, it's impossible, so I'll die, but I won't die alone--so at the same time, she punishes and she's punished. I mean, that's a very classical Catholic attitude toward the anxiety in the search for truth and love. You see, it's a symbol. And when the search fails, well, the woman has to die, and this one takes a man with her.

"What was so attracting about the film," she went on, smiling in a bright, hopeless way, as if she couldn't expect me to understand this, "was that, for the first time, it was shown that a woman can love two men. And that was something incredible." In 1961 Moreau herself had had a sort of pioneering attitude toward her own love life, which included one brief marriage (to legitimize a forthcoming son), many lovers, and continued friendships with all.

Catherine held attractions for the generation that inherited rather than fought the sexual revolution. But she also broached certain issues that were later realized in more overtly feminist thought. In the unequal competition between the sexes Catherine would do anything to hold her own, even jump in the Seine, which she does when her intellectuals forget her for discourse. "She can't talk as well as the men," I interpreted, "so she talks the only way she can."

Jeanne Moreau replied at once, "Exactly. That I adored and I felt that in my life I had to jump in the river many times. We all do." This broke the ice.

Jeanne Moreau grew up in a strict, lower middle-class Parisian household, where a daughter was so unexpected that Jeanne was almost named Pierrette. Monsieur Moreau was a small-time restaurateur; Madame, a one-time Tiller girl (the British version of a Ziegfield girl) who had met her husband by complaining about a meal. It was assumed that Jeanne would marry and hoped she would become a civil servant, but an accidental exposure to the stage proved fatal. Obviously a gifted actress, Moreau at 20 was the youngest member of the Comedie Francaise. She left at 23, "disgusted by the immorality" of actors who, for instance, would take unwanted roles simply to keep rivals out of them. On the Paris stage she was immensely successful, and it was considered the tragedy of a brilliant acting career that, for all her talent, Jeanne Moreau would never be a screen star because she was "not photogenic." Her eyes had rings around them. She had the beginning of jowls.

Still, she made 19 forgotten films between 1948 and 1958. The procedure in these films was to disguise her asymmetry with makeup and bleach her shadows out with lights. But with the shadows, Jeanne Moreau disappeared. Louis Malle figured this out and when, in 1958, he directed her in The Elevator to the Scaffold, he persuaded his producer, over the protests of the labs, to let him shoot Jeanne Moreau differently. Most of her scenes were filmed at night, in the light from shop windows. Elevator is a dark, urban, melancholy thriller of sorts, which Moreau spends mostly wandering around Paris, disillusioned, to a Miles Davis sound track. Malle's The Lovers, which followed, offered a better part in a more ambitious movie, and it was her breakthrough. The heroine's psychological condition here is partial self-discovery. Moreau's remarkable face registered every turning on the way.

For, as it took the New Wave sensibility to understand, this face was not only photogenic. It was a cinematic plum. It was extraordinarily sensitive to light and distance. The features could look harsh or delicate. The flesh could look waffled and smudged, or it could take on an almost negroid sheen and moulding. The simplifications of black and white photography could turn the contrasts of her smile and pout into a dazzling paradox. And the beauty that resulted came so perilously close to ugliness that it called the whole distinction into question.

In flesh the face of Jeanne Moreau looked neither beautiful nor ugly to me, just pretty, but the effects of light on it were if anything more startling than on film. At her morning press conference for the Women's Film Festival, the face was delicate and bright, and the rippling of fine eyebrows carried for rows back into the room. At a harshly lit panel a few nights later, dressed in coral silk and black velvet--and amid bad vibes--all that carried was the famous Moreau pout, framed by deep-shadowed lines from the nose. At her opening-night reception, in a silk dress covered with amber globes, she glowed, but an odd light momentarily threw into shadow the secret pouches of her jaw. At noon, under office light, from three feet away, the same jaw looked healthy and firm.

And yet it would be simplifying Jeanne Moreau to understand her power in strictly visual terms. Years ago, commenting on nudity in film, Moreau had said, "People want to see what's behind the clothes, but they forget that behind that there's still something else." Behind the paradoxes and textures of Moreau's flesh was an imagination so intense that she might cry for days after a crying scene of take on characteristics of her role offscreen, like heavy drinking.

The absoluteness of Moreau's dramatic imagination was never so clear to me as when I watched and heard her speak. She got so involved in the scenes she acted out that I kept seeing what she saw and losing sight of her. She spoke slowly, with the Gallic rhythms and British usage only increasing an appearance of great deliberation, even a certain grandeur. But the very challenge of a second language seemed so fraught with drama that when, for instance, she hadn't known "misogyny," she looked--ever so briefly--blank, sullen, miserable, like a bad child, and when at her press conference she found a hard term, "curriculum vitae," her pleasure was so intense that, though she had barely moved her body, I suddenly got the odd but distinct impression that she had waved the term overhead like a trophy. I often found myself reading this sort of visual telegram. While we were talking about European stereotypes of women, Moreau acted out a German vision, "the pure maiden, running in the fields at dawn," suggesting diaphanous garments with a fluttering of her fingers. Then, with the timing of a pro, she cast her eyes heavenward in a look so purely stupid that I had the strangest feeling that the word "cow" had popped up out of her forehead on a little stick. Individual words were dramatized. "Groww" was spat out like a disgusting gobbet from some fat old man with catarrh. "War" involved a preliminary pause and a hushing of the voice. "Free" and "freedom" were said with a shiver, as if to describe a plunge into some cold, delicious pool.

The more she warmed up, the more Moreau lapsed into dramatic anecdotes in which she played all the parts--snotty politicians, doctors bored by menopause, and an infuriatingly always-right Truffaut. "Talking to you, it reminds me of something," she said vehemently. "I was very angry at Truffaut. He wrote, some time in an article, what is so boring about women, novels written by women, it's that always, at some point, she stands naked in front of a mirror. A woman who's writing cannot say that a heroine looks at herself in a mirror!" In Lumiere there is a scene in which a very young actress, after a fight with her bullyish boyfriend, watches herself cry in the mirror. It is a humorous scene.

She remembered an incident in a restaurant. Two women approached her and asked the secret of her beauty; she said it was in the mind. "They were my age--but defeated." She slumped. "Then, I don't know, just for fun, I said, my only ambition is to die as late as possible, but to die young. And--I hurt them." She said this very self-reproachfully. "And I was very depressed." She sighed. Then she stirred herself up, urgently, as if she still had a chance to make amends. "I said, oh, to be old means nothing. Why should one destroy the pleasures of life, just because one says to oneself: Now, I'm old. The more you grow, the more you learn. You lose things," she conceded to an imaginary argument, then dropped her voice to continue it. "What things? You lose what? You gain more and more freedom."

When I first saw Moreau look old--in Going Places, a film she completely altered in a cameo role--I wasn't shocked. Moreau's beauty was always hard to locate in the body; age only proves that the body is not what her beauty has really been about. It's about the power of her imagination to speak through her body. Age did not reduce that power, and the body has even more to say.

On another great film face, Katherine Hepburn's, age has meant economy and clarity. But Moreau's face bears testimony to an aging that in no way means you stop making mistakes. You keep making them because you keep trying new things. "Something, some spirit, has just seemed to stay intact," I told her.

Jeanne Moreau lowered her voice, as if this should not be overheard and said quickly, "Yes, I know. That's the hardest part. Because you are attacked every day. Especially if you are an acress." And she modified her modification, generously, "Well, any woman. Any woman that works."

I had imagined that age would be the hardest subject to discuss. Moreau introduced it herself. In fact, the whole episode emerged in an answer to my question about differences between the French and American women's movements. Moreau was not comfortable with political language. "My personality doesn't push me to be involved in groups. Looking back, I discover that I've always been fighting for my . . . freedom and did everything possible to escape the usual conventional pattern. But just out of instinct." Some version of this is Moreau's standard answer to questions about her own feminism.

But whether the subject was political or not, Moreau's answers were frequently associative and elliptical. "Sometimes it's stronger than myself," she commented, herself. "I don't stick to the questions because it makes me feel things about other things, so I move around." Sometimes, amid a series of anecdotal associations so vivid and complex that I assumed my original question had been forgotten altogether, I would see my answer bobbing by, like a rowboat in a flotilla of yachts. The question about French and American feminism was never answered.

But when I asked what I considered a harder question--how she felt about beauty in herself and outside herself--she gave a quick little nod, as if she had been expecting this one and began her answer almost as if by rote: "When I started to be in films, I wasn't considered like a pretty girl . . ." but before long, she started to interest herself. "Onstage, I didn't worry at all. I attracted people just be being myself. I'm not a person--I have never been a person--who looked at myself in a mirror. I only related to myself as a person, a human being. Of course, I had to be conscious of my figure when I became about 15 years old. I was very, very thin, and I had no breasts, and I was not like all the girls around me. And it was very funny because I noticed I attracted more deeply the people around us."

"Why was that?"

Jeanne Moreau replied evenly, as if it were a child's lesson, "That was passion. It's passion. It's the desire to portray emotions in front of people. And . . . make-believe is truth."

The New Wave entered her story, and Malle, who told her to do her makeup herself. "He said, oh, and don't worry how you look, just be yourself. And suddenly I felt . . .free, as though I had come out of a prison. And I didn't wish to see rushes, I said, because I don't want to be worried any more about the conversations about my asymmetry and my eyes. I said, let me just dream that I'm somebody else and let's just do the film, and that's how it started. Since then I've never worried about my looks."

And she remembered to answer the whole question. "Beauty to my taste . . . you know those silly questions people ask you, what is your type of man, what is the first thing you look, is it the eyes, the hands, the mouth? I mean it's the general feeling, it's the person." She ended in a choked voice, as if such self-evident explanations were medicine she had to take, and she seemed relieved when the discussion moved from her looks to her film.

It was around 1967 that Jeanne Moreau began to think about directing. The preceding seven years had been a dense period of film activity: Antonioni's La Notte, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Joseph Losey's Eva, Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy), Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel), The Train (John Frankenheimer), Viva Maria (Malle), The Bride Wore Black (Truffaut), Immortal Story (Orson Welles)--to name only half. Moreau became increasingly selective--working only with people she liked, particularly young directors--and took time to be alone, to be with friends, and to read. It was during this time she began to think seriously about an idea that went back years, a film about close relationships between women.

Lumiere (as in camera, lights, action!) concerns a week in the intertwined lives of four actresses, in particular Sara Dedieu, played by and probably based on Moreau herself. Compared to the hurt, hardened, willful women Moreau has played so often, Sara is kind, passionate, and brave. But the men she loves are mysterious, petulant, and irrational.

Sara and Laura (Lucia Bose) have a relationship so committed that it's almost like a marriage, though the women live in different cities. Sara, a great actress, and Laura, a retired one, are unequal in intellect and distinction and their relationship is by no means a dialogue. But their reunions are primary events in the lives of both: They are the occasion for an exchange of absolute tenderness and support which the women find nowhere else in their lives. It is a friendship that I would find harder to imagine between men than, say, the conspiratorial and more intellectual relationship of Moly and Anna in The Golden Notebook. For me, as I expect for many women, the intimacy between Laura and Sara was charged with associations, and I found myself in unexplained tears watching and even remembering certain scenes.

Lumiere isn't exactly about this friendship. It's assumed; it's illuminated. But Lumiere is a film that never states clearly where its main action lies. It's about women; it's about the death of a friend, it's about the different textures of relationships. A lightweight love affair ends, one of the big ones begins; neither even has the emotional weight of the scene in which Sara, meeting Laura after a six-month separation, runs to her friend's bags to smell her new perfumes. Nameless characters--a good listening girlfriend, a reflective script girl--dominate shots in which they have no lines. The film begins with a short sequence in the idyllic present--exclusively female and tinged with sadness--jumps to a complicated past--which includes men and work--and there it ends, in the middle of something.

Lumiere's formal properties are as elusive, perhaps as asymmetrical, as Moreau herself. But, just as she has never been a person to look in mirrors, she doesn't care a great deal about form; not as such. She speaks proudly of instinct and coldly of technique--particularly in the hands of male directors so proficient that "you are carried away in spite of yourself, and then you're left, like a fish on the floor." When I asked her to explain her film's odd structure, she said, "At first, my plans were not like that. But in the middle of some terrible thing, I have a need to see how it will work out, and so I wanted people to know at first how it was afterward." Just as she makes movies with directors she likes and wears Cardin dresses because he's her friend, she didn't really plan her film's aesthetic effect. This itself creates an aesthetic effect.

"No, I don't think, until now, we could say that my approach was more womanly," she dodged the generalization in my question, then, in her way, picked it up on her own. "You see, men are so accustomed to the techniques that sometimes they're bored to death, and they're afraid it wouldn't be witty and brilliant enough, so they rely heavily on technique and then suddenly they have to cut.

"You see, that's a great quality we women have, it's--" I thought she would repeat her view that women's inexperience of technique was our greatest strength, but she lowered her voice intimately and said, "we're good listeners. And not just politely. Because when we leave we're not only concerned by the words but by the whole alchemy of the human being. And maybe then we could say that the way I shot my films was more womanly because I was impressed and fascinated and curious of the actresses and actors who were under the camera." The light should be "up to them," the camera should follow their movements, the director should protect "the inner life of his actors, because an actor is always frightened, and everything must help him: he must be loved.

One scene in Lumiere suggests that, as an actress, Moreau may have rankled under restrictions herself. Sara is shown under camera being told exactly what to do with her face. But the scene is based, it seems, on a happy memory from the filming of Immortal Story, when Orson Welles would sometimes tell her, "I don't, I don't wish to talk to you now, and do you mind, darling, if we roll and then I tell you what to do?" In this anecdote, Moreau's voice seemed to collapse: it had become the world-weary whisper of Orson Welles. "And we loved it. I had the impression that we were dancing--he behind the camera and me in front."

To my surprise, several minutes before the interview was scheduled to end, I realized that we had touched on all my questions. I said so to Jeanne Moreau, whom I thought might like to be on her way, but she said, in a very kind voice, "We still have a little time. You can think about something. You don't have to talk about it."

Actually, there was something, and it was behind my unanswered question about French and American styles of feminism. It was a curiosity about the mystique of the French woman, and particularly her distinctive style of, "I don't know, sexuality?"

Jeanne Moreau replied, "Yes, but you bring up something very interesting. I think we could say that a balanced French woman is at ease with her sexual inner life and accepts its presence. I think that it comes from the very ancient relationship between men and women. There was a period in the 17th and 18th centuries where the women were very powerful in France, in the courts. Powerful not only through sex but through intelligence. Some of these women were talked and written about as though they were beautiful, and then you discover that Madame de la Clos was 72. Because the agility of the mind has always been considered in the amorous French imagination, as a pleasure that is both a pleasure of the mind and the heart and the body.

"Because if we're talking about sexuality, I don't know if you know this story about Auguste Renoir, the great painter. And the thing he did, he sat in from of the raw canvas and, before putting any color, he would paint all the canvas a certain white. So that all the colors that he put after that had a little white in them. And I think that sexuality in a human being is that. No matter what we do, no matter what we think, we have that inside ourselves. All our intellect, all our actions, all our thoughts, all our words, is going through that, or is on top of that filter. It can become a filter or it can be considered as the base. Now that freedom in sex is a fashion, people talk about sexuality as though it was only some gross big red thing sticking out but, in fact, it's there all the time without having to think about it."

I told her I was sometimes afraid of where my own sexuality would lead. I was afraid it might cause men to treat me with disrespect. She said, "I know very well what you mean, and sometimes I feel that way myself." Then she gave me a little advice. "You shouldn't be hurt by these experiences. You should try not to be hurt by them; that's different."

In return I gave her a Doris Lessing reading list, for which she was passionately grateful. We walked to the office door and she shook my hand. She smiled so tenderly, with that odd way she had of telegramming images, that I could hardly believe she hadn't reached out a small, tanned finger to touch my hair. But of course she hadn't.

Village Voice, Nov. 15, 1976