First held in 2009, the Lumière Festival in Lyon (the birthplace of the Lumière brothers and, by extension, cinema) is an event specializing in theatrical showings of a selection of classics and more obscure gems. One of the permanent fixtures of the festival is a yearly strand devoted to women behind the camera. Officially, that slot was filled by Swedish-born actress-turned-director Mai Zetterling for 2022. However, one can argue this year’s tribute to Jeanne Moreau also fit the description.
One of the greats of the screen in France and abroad, Moreau also dabbled in directing with three features made between 1976 and 1983: two fiction films and one documentary, originally produced for television. While generally appreciated back in the day, all three titles fell into obscurity over the years, and remained generally unseen until Moreau’s estate partnered with French distributor Carlotta Films to restore them (Carlotta will re-release the triptych in cinemas in France, in addition to putting it on disc).
The screenings, introduced by the actress’s biographer Jean-Claude Moireau, were very well attended, to the extent I had to request a screener for the documentary because it was completely sold out (for this festival, members of the press have to request their tickets ahead of time, subject to availability). Granted, France has a special relationship to moviegoing, but it’s still heartwarming to see the queue for a restored French film that’s as long as the one for, say, Black Adam, when one of the local multiplexes is used as a festival venue.
While ostensibly different, the three films share a common thread of being quite personal to their maker. The first, Lumière, was released in 1976 and, as the title suggests, is about cinema. Four friends, all actresses, meet up to hang out and chat about their lives, personal and professional. Sarah, the one who organizes the get-together, is played by Moreau herself, although it isn’t a role she wrote with herself in mind. In fact, she only took it when everyone else she asked – Audrey Hepburn, Anouk Aimée, and Ingmar Bergman collaborators Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom – turned it down.
The other three main characters – Laura, Julienne and Caroline – were played respectively by Lucia Bosé (replacing fellow Italian star Silvana Mangano, who at that point was taking a hiatus from acting), Francine Racette (wife of Donald Sutherland, and four films away from retirement at the time of filming), and Caroline Cartier, who had appeared alongside Moreau in two films the previous year. On the male side, the first-time director gave early screentime to such rising European stars as Niels Arestrup and Bruno Ganz.
It’s a riveting, lovingly crafted character study that looks at the business we call show through the lens of its key players during their free time, eschewing the more traditional narratives of films like Godard’s Contempt or Truffaut’s Day for Night (where the character played by Jacqueline Bisset was supposedly based in part on Moreau). It was an achingly personal endeavor, according to biographer Moireau: he claims the director named one of the characters Julienne Pasquier after her grandmother, a key figure in Moreau’s life.
This connects to the second film, An Adolescent Girl (L’Adolescente), released in 1979 and partly made as an attempt to reconnect to France after Moreau had spent a couple of years in Los Angeles, married to William Friedkin (she returned to Europe after the divorce). Perhaps even more autobiographical than Lumière, it deals with a young girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence during a fateful summer vacation in 1939, shortly before the start of World War II. Moreau herself was eleven years old at the time of the film’s events, which are fictionalized retellings of her own experiences, especially as far as her relationship with the grandmother (played by Simone Signoret) is concerned. Unlike in her previous movie, the filmmaker does not have an on-camera role, but provides the uncredited narration.
Her directorial career ended prematurely with Lillian Gish, which she made in 1983, shortly before Gish’s retirement from acting. The idea for the project came from a series of radio programs she produced, discussing and analyzing the lives and careers of Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner and Cary Grant, among others. She then decided to film interviews with the great American actresses she admired, to chart a history of Hollywood cinema. Sadly, the project never went beyond the first installment, mainly because of financial difficulties and the producer’s death.
Had the series continued as planned, the list of interviewees (who had reportedly already agreed to appear) would have included Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. As it stands, we only have the conversation with Lillian Gish, which took place in her own apartment and is a refreshingly candid chat between peers, with Moreau expressing her admiration without deifying her subject, while Gish acknowledges the many milestones of her career while admitting that much was the product of chance. It plays like a European counterpoint to the sometimes overly reverential tone James Lipton adopted on Inside the Actors Studio; in fact, one may wonder how that area of television could have turned out if Moreau had had the opportunity to keep going with her idea, a full decade before Lipton turned an academic masterclass into entertainment.
In addition to the series coming to an end before it really took off, it was also the final act of Moreau’s experience behind the camera, despite many attempts to direct again throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s: most notably, she pursued an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice, which was to have been filmed in Lancashire in the UK (the home region of the actress’s mother) and fell through for unspecified reasons. She also met with Bernhard Schlink several times, but the object of her attention in that case – The Reader – was acquired by Miramax and went on to earn Kate Winslet an Oscar.
What remains, therefore, is a mere three films that form a sort of cohesive collection of thoughts about life and cinema, and a tantalizing hint of what could have been a brilliant career path alongside acting if the system – in France and Hollywood – had operated a bit differently. And now, thanks to the joint effort of Moreau’s estate and Carlotta Films, these three objects of curiosity can enjoy a new life on the screen, starting with their French re-release.