As someone who loved to harness the deceptive powers of filmmaking, as well as enjoying the magician's arts, Orson Welles laid many false trails and started more than a few myths over the length of his storied life. But one quote of his remains as true as the day he uttered it: Jeanne Moreau, he declared, was “the greatest actress in the world”.
The French thespian and the American titan worked together repeatedly during Welles' exile years in the 1960s and 1970s – they started four films together and finished three, which is quite successful for a Welles collaborator – and while none of those titles are part of the splendid Jeanne Moreau season currently screening at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the works included can't fail to inspire the same conclusion.
“Moreau is one of the most challenging screen actresses,” writes David Thompson in his essential The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. “At her best, she is riveting, capable of persuading us that she is beautiful, and able to vary her own appearance according to mood. Above all, and without any trace of rhetoric, she bares a vivid but vulnerable soul.”
The eight films in the ACMI season, curated by ACMI's James Nolen, provide a comparatively concise cross-section of Moreau as a lead actress of impressive range and subtle nuance. Beginning with 1958's Elevator to the Gallows and ending chronologically with 1968's The Bride Wore Black, the season is an embarrassment of riches, with the names of the directors alone capable of emphasising Moreau's worth: Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel and more.
By continue to work relentlessly – Moreau is currently involved in stage and screen productions as both an actor and behind the scenes, and may even tour Australia in 2014 with a theatre piece – the 85-year-old, who has often noted that she no time for nostalgia, refuses to allow her past to be deified. Equally, Moreau's performances have a startling sense of being lived in the moment, and she played wilful characters without a hint of a safety net for their impulses.
“Once you are in the character, whatever happens, the scene is now,” Moreau explained in 2001. “New scene, new lines, it doesn't matter. If you are the character just bit by bit, then of course, you panic! 'Oh, how am I going to breathe!' and it becomes complicated. But if you have your suitcase – meaning the costumes of biography – with all your things, bits and pieces, shoes, skirts, coat, cold, rain, heat, happiness, pain, whatever, you're ready.”
Watching Moreau wander the streets of Milan in Antonioni's The Night (1961) she suggests an unease that would become explicit in the Italian filmmaker's subsequent works. But with Moreau, playing the disaffected wife of Marcello Mastroianni's author, you can sense the new city rising from building sites being matched by a new take on feminine life that Moreau is authoring block by block, party by party.
Unlike Bridget Bardot or Catherine Deneuve, Moreau was not an ingénue discovered and unveiled in her raw youth. The daughter of a French restaurateur and an English dancer, the bilingual Moreau was already a star on the French stage when the then-unknown Louis Malle came backstage one night (Moreau was playing Maggie in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and asked her to star in his debut film, Elevator to the Gallows.
Moreau was aged 30 when the picture was released and the noir-like thriller, scored by Miles Davis' mournful trumpet, established her as a woman – not a girl – who was willing to impose herself on the world, or at least try to. In Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) Moreau's domestic servant arrives at a 1930s chateau where her uniformed presence and personal determination act as circuit breakers to the fraught, unbalanced atmosphere. Her Celestine is the mistress of her own estate by the movie's end, and the strength of Moreau's performance provides the spine for what is one of the Spanish director's most narratively conventional films.
Moreau moved between easily between various generations of French filmmakers. She could work with an establishment provocateur such as Roger Vadim, playing the conniving Juliette in a misconceived modern-day adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (1959) and then step onto the low-budget set of a French New Wave production such as Truffaut's masterpiece Jules and Jim (1962; pictured).
Dazzlingly frenetic, yet also tragically moving, Truffaut's movie remains a cinematic touchstone, and at the centre of it is Moreau's mercurial Catherine, a woman who entangles both Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) in a romantic triangle that is both ecstatic and destructive. Half a century on, as with most of these films, Jeanne Moreau remains a revelation.
Focus on Jeanne Moreau screens at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image until Tuesday 26 February. For further details visit www.acmi.net.au.