Disappearing Act

Jeanne Moreau\'s talent and versatility is obvious in ACMI\'s new season Focus on the French screen siren, according to Andrew Moraitis.

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A childish gambler who utilises her looks to scam money from strangers, a beleaguered wife unsure of her marriage to a cheating writer, a kindly chambermaid who would risk her life to achieve justice, a sociopathic manipulator willing to destroy others’ happiness for her own vindictiveness, an increasingly depressed heroine that falls in love with one man but marries his best friend: in their physical and psychological challenges, these roles demand an extraordinary degree of range and skill. In retrospect, it’s astonishing to realise that one actor could have convincingly portrayed all these roles in a relatively short amount of time. Yet Jeanne Moreau, working with directors as distinctive as Roger Vadim, Luis Buñuel and François Truffaut, managed to bring versatility, focus and magnetism to these roles, cementing her deserved reputation as one of the finest French actresses of the 20th Century with her vivid and imaginative performances in these roles.

Other performers can credibly transform themselves (with the help of make-up, costume design or even prosthetics) into a range of disparate characters with physical skill, but cannot divorce themselves from their mannerisms, eventually succumbing to repetition in acting choices as a result of their lack of emotional range or sensitive acting technique. Moreau, however, disappears less with physical apparatus than with an extreme level of focus and precision in her acting choices. Probably best known for her enigmatic and alluring performance in the iconic New Wave film Jules et Jim, she disappears into the respective psychologies of her characters, hinting at tensions simmering beneath a poised surface. It’s thrilling to see someone in such command of her craft … and the films aren’t bad, either.           

Her physical control is apparent in Jacques Demy’s energetic but sad Bay of Angels, a niftily edited character study about the selfishness and anxieties of two gamblers, Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) and Jackie (Moreau). Moreau is astonishingly good as the seemingly childlike Jackie, jumping between flighty almost pre-pubescent behaviour to a more focused – but still childish – concentration. In a more exploitative film, she might have been a more overt femme fatale, but Demy isn’t interested in assigning blame for the characters’ self-destructive patterns. Instead, Demy relies on the excellent performances from his two leads, who both deliver the complicated emotions of long scenes with intelligent control. Just as importantly, they also create deeply felt performances too, investing their characters’ darker elements with empathy. Only the ending misfires, in which Demy indulges in sentimentality at odds with the story’s trajectory. 

In an impressive internalised performance, Moreau provides us with a surprisingly empathetic Merteuil in Vadim’s Les liaisons dengereuses, which updates Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel to contemporary France. Her Merteuil – this time Valmont’s wife – is an unexpectedly forlorn creation: her vampiric actions come from a deep place of self-disgust and jealousy.  Unlike other actors’ interpretations of the character (for instance, Glenn Close’s in the Stephen Frears film, who breaks down emotionally by the end), Moreau seems far more in control of herself and her emotions: she died a long time ago, it seems, and her later physical destruction is an apt metaphor for her soul, as one character points out. Like her fine performance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s relationship drama La Notte, she exudes her character’s internal turmoil with the subtlest of glances, allowing her expressive eyes to communicate Merteuil’s fears and jealousies, even if her dialogue explicitly says otherwise. Moreau’s work is helped in no small part by Vadim’s persuasive direction.

It takes an especially skilled actor to take a character unburdened by genuine internal conflict and to make that person not only feel real but also vivid. However, that talent is apparent in Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid. As Celestine, the only character who seems to care about a horrific crime perpetuated against a girl, Moreau gives a witty, winning performance, always hinting at the character’s intellectual keenness even as Celestine is burdened as a below-the-line character. Moreau could have played her as more of a victim, but her performance asks for no self-pity, creating a genuinely heroic portrait of an unpretentious and generous character. The other performances are authentic and intelligent, too, in a film that would serve as an ideal introduction into the work of Buñuel. 

From the 14th to the 26th of February, ACMI will present Focus on Moreau. Curated by James Nolen, the season will feature Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l\'échafaud), The Lovers (Les amants), Dangerous Liaisons (Les liaisons dangereuses), The Night (La notte), Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim), The Bay of Angels (La baie des anges), Diary of a Chambermaid (Le journal d\'une femme de chambre) and The Bride Wore Black (La mariée était en noir).

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