Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras is a curious novella. It is short, 122 pages in my One World Classic version, but has a much more expansive feel to it. The story takes place over the course of a week. Anne Desbaredes, and she is always Anne Desbaredes, is in Mrs. Giraud’s apartment with her young son for his piano lesson when they hear a scream and a ruckus in the street below. It turns out a woman has been murdered by her lover in a cafe.
Anne Desbaredes becomes obsessed with the murder and goes to the cafe nearly everyday where she drinks too much wine and talks with Chauvin, an unemployed worker from one of her husband’s factories. Anne Desbaredes and Chauvin talk of the murder and try to puzzle out why the man would kill his lover.
That’s the story on the surface. Underneath there is Anne Desbaredes’s unhappiness. One gets the sense that for her, everyday is pretty much the same day. But now, here she is, one of the wealthiest women in town, sitting in a shabby cafe getting drunk and talking to an unemployed factory worker who knows way too much about her. Each year Anne Desbaredes’s husband holds a reception at his big expensive house at the end of the street for all his workers. Chauvin has been there, he knows what the inside of the house looks like. He talks to Anne Desbaredes about her bedroom and what she does when she can’t sleep and what she sees from her window.
For Anne Desbaredes, being in the cafe is a social faux pas. She should not be there as it is where the workers from her husband’s factories go when their day is done. This might be why she drinks so much wine, it calms her and keeps her from worrying about the stares from the men. It also helps her focus on Chauvin and the love affair they conduct in words. But the words are never about their own love affair. They are always sitting in public and have nothing in particular to hide, but everyone who sees them seems to know what is going on. There is as much going on with what is not said as there is with what is said.
Anne Desbaredes always goes out with her child. Her excuse to go to the cafe is that she and the boy are out on their evening walk. It’s not clear how old the boy is but my guess is 6 or 7. He plays outside the cafe and comes and looks in the door now and then to check to see that his mother is still there. Anne Desbaredes loves the child but clearly has not much interest in him. She seems rather distant and the boy seems rather desperate for her love and attention.
The title of the book means moderately and melodiously. It is taken from the Diabelli Sonata that the boy is learning at his piano lessons. The tempo of the piece is moderato cantabile. This can also be used to describe the book itself. It moves along at a moderate and melodious pace. The language is beautiful and rhythmic and I floated along through it. I could have read the book in a few hours but I came out of my story trance about halfway through and stopped on purpose because I did not want to rush to the end.
I have not read Duras before but have always meant to. I don’t know much about her so I had to look her up. She was born in 1914 near Saigon in what is now Vietnam and was then French Indochina. Her parents moved there because the French government was encouraging people to work in the colony. Her father died when she was young and the family lived in poverty after her mother made a bad real estate investment. As a teen Duras had an affair with a Chinese man. And was supposedly she was beaten by her brother and her mother.
Duras went to France for college, studied the law, became a Communist, worked for the French government, married (her husband was in the French Resistance and almost died in Bergen-Belsen), and finally ended up becoming a writer of novels and plays as well as a respected filmmaker. She died in 1996 of throat cancer.
Because I had no idea what the Diabelli Sonata sounded like, I Googled it and found a YouTube video of a six-year-old boy playing it at a recital. What could be more perfect?
Jeanne Moreau, who appeared in over 130 films over a period of sixty-five years and was declared “the greatest actress in the world” by none other than Orson Welles, has passed away in Paris at the age of eighty-nine. She worked with Jean Gabin in Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and took the lead in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958). François Truffaut immortalized her iconic visage in Jules and Jim (1962), and she would work with him again on The Bride Wore Black (1968). She appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961), Welles’s The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962), Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels (1963), Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991), François Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005), Tsai Ming-liang’s Face (2009), and Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow (2012).
Among the many awards honoring her work are the Best Actress Award in Cannes for her performance in Peter Brook’s Seven Days... Seven Nights (1960), the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress for Viva Maria! (Malle, 1965), and the César Award for Best Actress for The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (Laurent Heynemann, 1992). Moreau was the only actress to have twice chaired the Cannes Film Festival jury, in 1975 and 1995.
Updates: “Moreau’s relationship with the director Louis Malle and the two films they made in the late 1950s would alter the course of her career—and arguably that of post-war French cinema,” writes Ginette Vincendeau for Sight & Sound:
Moreau’s atypical beauty, what she called “the rings under my eyes and my asymmetrical face,” fitted the young filmmaker’s desire for a more authentic cinema and at the same time a more cerebral type of female eroticism, based on the face rather than the body. Opening [Elevator to the Gallows] with a huge close-up of Moreau’s face, he then proceeded to film her moodily walking the night-time streets of Paris in the rain, to an evocative soundtrack by Miles Davis (she is looking for her lover who has, at her instigation, killed her husband). Their next film The Lovers (Les Amants, 1959) caused an even bigger stir with her “scandalous” representation of female desire (she plays a woman who leaves her husband and daughter for a younger lover). Lift to the Scaffold and The Lovers were a turning point, symbolically erasing her earlier professional background, her previous public image and even her looks. She was “reborn” as a New Wave star.
“Coming to the fore during the years of the Nouvelle Vague, Moreau was as integral an element as the jump cut, the Champs Elysees, or the New York Herald Tribune,” writes Adam Batty.
“Her personal life proved to be as captivated as her on-screen performances,” writes Duane Byrge for the Hollywood Reporter. “‘When I am in love, it influences my pleasure in acting,’ she told Playboy in 1965. ‘Most people don't have the energy for passion, so they give up and go to the movies.’ In 1976, Moreau wrote and directed Lumiere, which focused on four actresses. She also directed L'Adolescente in 1979, which won critical acclaim. In 1997, she directed a third film, Solstice.”
Variety’s Carmel Dagan and Richard Natale translate a tweet from Cannes Film Festival president Pierre Lescure: “She was strong and she didn’t like to see people pour their hearts out. Sorry, Jeanne, but this is beyond us. We are crying.”
Dagan and Natale also note Moreau’s “long association” with Marguerite Duras, “providing the narration for both the English and French versions of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 adaptation of Duras novel The Lover; in 2001, she played the novelist and filmmaker in [Josée Dayan’s] Cet amour-là.”
Moreau “brought to the screen a singular, inimitable verve, a petulance, and a shameless gaze,” wrote Peter Cowie for Current last August. “Her range was extraordinary: she could play a nun in The Carmelites, the eccentric Miss Burstner in Welles’s The Trial, the peroxide-blonde gambler in Demy’s Bay of Angels, and the moody heroine of Peter Brook’s Moderato Cantabile.” He recalled interviewing Moreau in 2006: “‘To me, acting is a calling, a way of life more than a career,’ she emphasized. ‘My life feeds my art, and my art feeds my life. I didn’t want the destiny of a regular girl.’ . . . Her decision to enter the theater provoked a rupture with her father. ‘Even now,’ she said to me, more than half a century after her debut, ‘when I receive an award or a tribute, I think to myself, “Yes, I was right, and my father was wrong.”’”
Writing about Bay of Angels in 2014, Terrence Rafferty observed that “she was always able to suggest, in her abrupt gestures and fast flickers of changing expression, that her characters had lived, fully and freely, before the camera ever caught sight of them—and that we would know of their pasts only what they chose to tell us.”
“Ms. Moreau was romantically linked with Truffaut and Malle, and had highly publicized romances with the fashion designer Pierre Cardin, the director Tony Richardson and the actor Lee Marvin,” notes Anita Gates in the New York Times. “In 1949, she married Jean-Louis Richard, a French actor and screenwriter with whom she had a son (born the day after their wedding). That marriage lasted two years, as did her second (1977-79), to the American director William Friedkin. She is survived by her son, Jérôme Richard, an artist.”
“A notoriously difficult interviewer,” writes Gwilym Mumford for the Guardian, “Moreau responded with characteristic sharpness when asked if she ever felt nostalgic for the French New Wave. ‘Nostalgia for what? Nostalgia is when you want things to stay the same. I know so many people staying in the same place. And I think, my God, look at them! They’re dead before they die. That’s a terrible risk. Living is risking.’”
“Of the three most iconic French actresses of her generation—herself, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot—Moreau was the one with the most on-screen authority,” Sight & Sound editor Nick James tells the BBC. “Post-war French cinema is unthinkable without her. . . . She was, perhaps, the female equivalent of what Welles called a ‘king’ actor—someone who cannot help but be the centre of attention. Certainly, over time, she became almost everyone's idea of the ultimate magnetic French movie star.”
The Guardian’s posted an impressive photo gallery.
“Although Moreau seemed the archetypical French woman, she was half English; her mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a Lancashire lass, from Oldham.” Ronald Bergan for the Guardian: “‘I’m very proud of being half English and I think as time passes my best English qualities are more and more visible,’ remarked Moreau. ‘I’m pleased I can be outrageous as only the English can be.’ . . . ‘People—especially women—worry so much about aging,’ she said when she was in her 70s. ‘But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.’”
Moreau “was a grande dame without haughtiness or prejudice,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Her grandeur didn’t erect walls around her; it widened her vistas, increased her curiosity, enabled her adventures, overcame narrow boundaries. She was a queen of intellect—but an intellect that was no cloistered bookishness but an idea and an ideal of culture that enriched experience, envisioned progress, looked ardently at the times.”
AnOther Magazine has posted an interview with Moreau conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist for its Autumn/Winter 2012 issue:
HUO: The connection to literature is strong in your work because there was not only Genet but also Henry Miller, there was Jean Cocteau, there were many . . .
JM: But of course I knew Jean Cocteau well! We worked together on La Machine Infernale. And it was thanks to Jean that I met Jean Renoir, because I had dinner with Jeannot and Ingrid Bergman, who were going to film with Jean Renoir.
HUO: And with Jean Cocteau, was there an intense dialogue with him?
JM: Oh, there was an imbecile, a secretary that destroyed my letters from Cocteau . . .
JM: All the letters, everything.
HUO: And Henry Miller?
JM: Well, Henry Miller I met through Anaïs Nin . . .
At Slate, Sam Adams looks back on an interview as well. “As Moreau told me in 1999, on the occasion of a retrospective of Truffaut’s movies: “I knew we were doing something very special and very graceful. I had no idea the effect it would have on people, but I knew the effect it had on me. I thought, ‘At last someone understands that when people say, “I’ll love you forever” it’s a lie.’ I knew it was a lie from the beginning, since I was a child, and suddenly I had the luck to give life to a character who expresses interests for two different men, and that didn’t mean she didn’t love both.”
Joe Leydon remembers that, when he spoke with Moreau in 1989, she recalled not exactly warming up to the idea of being called “the new Bette Davis”: “But many years later, through a common friend in LA, I was told, ‘Well, Bette Davis would like to know you at last. After all these years, she heard that there’s a new Bette Davis, and it's getting on her nerves.’ So he arranged a lunch that we had, at the Brown Derby, the two of us, and I loved being with her. That was about 15 years ago. And after that, each time she came to Paris, or each time I was in New York or LA and she was free, we would meet. I admire her very, very much.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that “her beauty always had a stunningly fatale quality, perhaps most obviously in the dark circles under her eyes. She was certainly, for me, more vivid in Jules et Jim than, say, Anna Karina in Godard’s Bande à Part in 1964. Her beauty is more restless, more piercing, more discriminating and in a way more detached. She always looks as if she could walk out of the screen, and away into some other story.”
For Vogue,Ellie Pithers writes about Moreau’s “best style moments on-screen.”
Updates, 8/1: “Moreau took to drinking wine in the morning to get close to the woman she was playing in the Peter Brook film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile (1960), arguably her greatest—or most exposed—performance,” writes Dan Callahan at RogerEbert.com. “Moreau wears blondish hair in that film as an isolated wife and mother stifled by her bourgeois life and obsessing over another woman’s murder. She moves around a small seaside town like someone walking a tightrope with no net underneath. It’s as if there’s no state of mind Moreau won’t explore in Moderato Cantabile, and her emotional registers are very unusual in that movie, even eccentric. . . . Moreau reaches the crest of her power on screen in Moderato Cantabile at 39 minutes and 46 seconds in, as the camera holds on her staring, unblinking face until at 40:08 she shuts her eyes hard and falls away from the frame. I’m not sure what this 22 seconds on Moreau’s face is supposed to mean. I only know that it is so cutting that you will never forget her face here once you have seen it.”
Time’s Stephanie Zacharek on that face: “Anyone who doesn’t respond to it—that drowsy mouth turned down at the corners, those alert, quizzical eyes—is probably untrustworthy as a human being. But when your mom told you that true beauty comes from within, she was right about that too: Moreau’s spirit informed her beauty, and it’s the key to what made her such a sensual, captivating, powerful actress.”
“It was impossible to know Jeanne Moreau without being enthralled, excited, impressed and quite certain that you were in the presence of someone who knows more about the world than you do,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “Deep experience of life and love defined her screen persona and exuded from her every pore, and serious wisdom came along with that. More than anyone I've ever known, she convinced me that nothing in human experience was foreign to her, a quality that served her magnificently in life and work.”
In 2001, Dave Kehr met Moreau for the NYT: “I am open to what is irrational,’ Ms. Moreau said in her suite at the Pierre on a recent visit to New York. ‘I open doors to intuition, because rationality is really death. Nothing that happens makes sense anyway.’”
Updates, 8/2: For Variety’s Peter Debruge, “her most devastating role” is the “compulsive gambler in Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels. Other actors may have won Oscars for their portrayals of self-destructive characters, but no performance gets as deep into the psychosis of addiction as Moreau does in that film. It’s there in her bones, and every gesture reinforces the tragic fact that she’s drawn to the thrill of losing everything.”
Update, 8/3: At JSTOR Daily, Matthew Wills points us to a piece Joshua Siegel wrote for MoMA in 1994. Here’s Siegel on Elevator to the Gallows: “Moreau’s cadences are inimitable—the modulations of her voice and in her movements are precise, and she is always careful to remain ahead of the beat or to lag behind it to keep things off balance. What to the uninitiated appeared unphotogenic was in fact something never before seen in a female movie star.”
Updates, 8/4: “In 1996, Jeanne was chairman of the Montreal World Film Festival jury that I was a member of, and my initial impression, that she was simultaneously spontaneous, conscientious and playful, never changed,” writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. “As novelist Nadine Gordimer, who'd been on a jury with her at Cannes, said, she was ‘an unlikely combination, both imperious and lovable.’”
“There can be no greater tribute to an actor than to say she radiated an aura that nobody else could hope to duplicate,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “There is no ‘Moreau type.’ Any performer who sought to emulate her was doomed to failure.”
Updates, 8/5:Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival, notes that Moreau “actually attended the very first Festivals of Festivals in 1976 with her first film as a writer-director, Lumière. . . . I was there but never saw, let alone met her.” She returned with Cet amour-là. “It would be my first chance to meet her. The year, however, was 2001, and the film was scheduled to play on September 11—bad timing, to say the least. The horrific events of that day meant that we had to cancel all screenings, hers included.” But “Moreau returned to the Festival in 2008 with Amos Gitai’s Plus tard, and she invited me to have tea in her suite at the Sutton Place Hotel. So one afternoon, I took the elevator up to her room, knocked on the door, and it was promptly opened by Mlle. Moreau.”
Film Alert 101 posts remembrances from Peter Kemp,John Conomos, and Michael Campi and Noel Bjorndahl.
Updates, 8/6: “Moreau plays a woman who might turn you into the police, or gamble away all your money, or have her boyfriend kill you—or make you drive off the road, killing you both.” Lauren Elkin for Prospect: “Her characters are charming and terrifying. And every one of them is resolutely free.” In Bay of Angels, “as long as [Jackie] can make the choice to gamble her last 5,000 francs, she’s free. Moreau doesn’t play her like a theory, or a concept; she plays her like a real woman, someone who doesn’t understand her own impulses, who makes herself vulnerable, who’s sometimes joyful, sometimes genuinely afraid. It’s quitte ou double for Jackie, as they say in French: double or nothing.”
Gary Meyer recalls seeing her onscreen for the first time when he was around fifteen, catching a glimpse of her in Cannes in 1971 as “she emerged from a party with Louis Malle, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon,” listening to her speak at length in San Francisco in 1974, and then, having co-founded Landmark Films, working with her to distribute L’Adolescente in the U.S.
Update, 8/9: Moreau’s Lumière is “an excellent film,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “one that deserves to be revived and discussed alongside the classics by other directors in which she performed. Moreau, one of the great actors of the time, was one of the best, most popular, and busiest actors of the time, and in Lumière, she films what she knows: the world of movies, on and off the set. The movie’s subject is the link of life and art, and it’s filled with a lifetime of thought and insight about both; Moreau conveys her harsh and blunt practical wisdom in a tone of hard-won serenity, and dramatizes the effort of maintaining it.”
Updates, 8/17: “Moreau was one of those actors who seemed sometimes to stop the camera dead in its tracks, just to watch her,” writes Terrence Rafferty here in Current. “She altered the tempo of films all by herself.”
Andréa R. Vaucher interviewed Moreau for the March/April 1990 issue of Film Comment and revisits the conversation in FC’s latest podcast (36’20”).
Update, 8/18: “In the liminal space she occupies, it may seem an odd contention to champion Jeanne Moreau as some kind of proto-feminist heroine,” writes Christina Newland at RogerEbert.com. “But her stardom has never been concretely political or wholly ‘empowering’ in that sense. Instead, her screen presence is fluid and primal. It’s a combination of knowing, wise femininity and comfort in the power one can wield with it. She is unfazed, defiant, and self-assured in a way that absolutely compelled me as a young film student.”
Update, 9/6: “Moreau, who once declared that “physical beauty is a disgrace,” found in Catherine, and the experimental manner of New Wave filmmaking, an excuse to challenge the notion of how women should look on-screen,” writes Daisy Woodward for AnOther.
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