Sunday, June 29, 2008

Moreau Mania

This week I managed to catch a couple of the Jeanne Moreau films currently being screened at the National Film Theatre. Moreau is one of my favourite French actresses, and she also happens to star in three of my favourite films of all time, Louis Malle's L'Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud (1958) and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962) and Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

The two films I saw this week are lesser-known: Malle's Le Feu Follet (1963) and Joseph Losey's Eva (1962). Le Feu Follet captures a similar sense of malaise and discontent that permeates his earlier film, but the two contrast in style. Whilst L'Ascenseur seduces the audience with its slick cinematography, heightened film noir feel, and stunning Miles Davis sountrack, Le Feu Follet is more subtle, more overtly troubling. Also, whilst Malle's earlier work is overtly cinematic, almost a pastiche of the film noir genre and the femme fatale figure (played exquisitely by Jeanne Moreau), Le Feu Follet is a moving portrayal of a troubled male protagonist, Alain. The film covers the period of time in which Alain copes with entering the real world after recovering from an alcohol addiction, from his dismissal from a private clinic to his tragic suicide. Compared to Malle's earlier feature, where she has centre-stage (encapsulated by the famous scene where her character walks the dark, rainy streets of Paris in desperate search of her doomed lover), Moreau has a very minor part in this film. But of course when she does appear on-screen as one of the protagonist's former lovers, her presence is captivating.

Eva, on the other hand, is rather a clumsy hotch-potch of a film - or at least at first appearances. Moving in places, yet verging on melodrama in others, most of all it is far too long. It tells the story of a Welshman (Stanley Baker), a writer and social climber from a working class background, who is ruined by his relationship with a cruel yet beautiful femme fatale (Jeanne Moreau, of course). Because of its length - at various instances I was convinced the dénouement was around the corner, but then another scene followed, and then another - it made for rather difficult viewing. Aside from some beautiful location shots of Venice, its foggy alleyways and the heady decadence of its bars, hotels and gambling joints, and almost a ciné-vérité feel at times (Peggy Guggenheim even makes a bespectacled appearance), it is Moreau's expressive, sensitive interpretation of the role saves the film from descending into melodrama. There is something about her face that is bewitching, with its capacity to light up with a flirtatious smile and suddenly switch to a piercing, malevolent glare, that allows her to bring complexity and mystery to every role she plays. Even in one scene, when she walks among some large, marble busts of historic figures with Baker in the early hours, talking to the statues in a wistful tone and moving her hands over the contours of their faces, Moreau retains her intriguing aura and keeps the viewer's interest. If a less-able actress had acted in this scene, it would have been painfully clichéd. So in the end, the film is more complex than its plot may have us believe. Like his Italian contemporaries, Antonioni, Risi, et al, Losey manages to convey a sense of emptiness, cruelty and deadly ambition beneath the veneer of glamour and elegance in high-society.

(images: Jeanne Moreau in Le Feu Follet, Jules et Jim and L'Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud)

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