John-Paul Flintoff

Jules et Jim et moi

We all adore Jeanne Moreau

When I was at school, I devised my very own revision course for French: I watched Jules et Jim. I watched other French films too, but mostly I watched Jules et Jim. At home, on video, I watched it again and again, sometimes more than once a day.

In the course of enlarging my French vocabulary, I wrestled earnestly with the question of whether I identified most closely with Jules, the fair-haired German, or with Jim, the dark Frenchman. And I wondered how, in either case, I would deal with the unpredictable conduct of Catherine, the lover they shared, played by Jeanne Moreau.

This self-invented educational programme, I’m glad to report, secured me top marks for spoken French. Less happily, it led me to conceive an impression, unbudgeable for some years afterwards, that French women – perhaps women in general – are adorable lunatics.

I mention this because it may help to explain why, minutes before interviewing Moreau at her hotel in Istanbul, I find myself phoning my wife in London: I’m feeling nervous, and hoping for reassurance.

Moreau, the first French actress to appear on the cover of Time magazine, started as a classical theatre actress just after World War II, then went into film and spearheaded the Nouvelle Vague. The actors and directors she’s worked with include legendary figures from the past as well as many of today’s biggest names. In 1998, she won an Oscar for lifetime’s achievement. Today, a cinema in Paris bears her name.

In 2001, Moreau was inducted into the French Academie des Beaux-Arts – the first woman in the Academie’s nearly 200-year history. According to French tradition, this made official her status as an immortelle. In short, if you haven’t grasped it yet, Moreau is the greatest living actress in France, perhaps anywhere. And her speciality is the strong woman, the seductress, the uncontainable animal spirit.

Despite several attempts, my wife proves unavailable. So I phone my parents instead. After all, they’re the ones who put up with those endless showings of Jules et Jim. Mercifully I pull myself together just as my mother answers the phone. I pretend everything is fine, and tell her that the Bosphorus looks very attractive through the hotel windows. Then I go in to see Moreau.

Having done my research, I’m not surprised to find that she is short. I know too that she has contempt for cosmetic surgery, and indeed any attempt to prevent the effects of aging. That being said, she’s still, at 78, one of the most glamorous people I’ve ever met.

Her hair is bobbed, and she wears a smart black jacket over jeans. On her left hand she wears a ring with a gigantic pearl. She places on the table before her a box of cigarettes; she manages not to smoke while we talk, but her voice is huskier than any you’re likely to hear outside a cancer ward.

She sits on a sofa. I take a chair. But she says she can’t hear me properly and invites me to sit beside her. Over the course of our conversation, perhaps by way of punctuation, she touches me several times on the hand. Also on the elbow. Possibly the thigh, too – but the interview passes in such a blaze that I’m afraid I can’t quite remember.

According to my notes, we start by discussing Jules et Jim.

“Still today, on the streets of New York,” she says, “people stop me and say, what a marvelous story. And I say, do you remember the end? And they don’t.” The end, it should be said, is tragic. “Katherine can’t have her dream, of loving both men, so she takes the car and drown herself and her lover.”

So how does Moreau account for the film’s energetic, exuberant mood? “There is a mood in every film. It has something to do with the mood of the director, and something to do with the story itself. We started Jules et Jim with very little money. There was a very small crew – we only had a soundman on the day we recorded the song, and everything else was post-synched – so there was a great sense of freedom. It was very inventive. Francois [Truffaut] would say, I’m going to rewrite that scene. He was reinventing all the time.

“Making a film is like a voyage. You have to take your luggage, as Orson [Welles] used to say. You discover a little world, you discover other people, and you discover humanity. You get deeper and deeper in the human mind. It’s an incredible adventure.”

Jules et Jim was released more than 40 years ago. Moreau is famously indifferent to nostalgia, and I’m conscious that to talk about such ancient work must be frustrating. Imagine that somebody were to ask you, 40 years from now, about the project you happen to be working on. Would you remember anything?

We move on. She’s come to the Istanbul Film Festival to collect another lifetime-achievement award; immediately afterwards, there’s to be a showing of her latest film. In Time To Leave [Le Temps Qui Reste], a young man finds out that he has only months to live. The only person he confides in is his grandmother, played by Moreau. It’s a small part, but she makes the character incredibly real.

“My face has changed with the years,” she explains. “It has enough history in it to give audiences something to work with.”

Rather cruelly, the grandson tells Moreau’s character that he’s confiding in her because, like him, she’s going to die soon. How does Moreau, approaching 80, feel about death?

“I saw my first body when I was seven. I was surrounded by religious people who talked about paradise and all that shit. In the war, I saw violent death. In Paris, at the end, I saw an old German soldier: his clothes were torn apart and people were beating him to death.

“That was horrible, but we should not be against death. We all face it. Death is an absolute mystery. But it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.”

Moreau’s mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a Tiller girl from Oldham who went to Paris in the 1920s to dance at the Follies Bergeres with Josephine Baker. She fell in love with a Frenchman, Anatole Moreau. “I believe they got married only because she got pregnant,” says Moreau, “although nobody ever talked about that.”

Anatole’s family never accepted Kathleen. “She danced on stage with her breasts showing. Can you imagine! My grandmother was very religious, but she asked my mother why she didn’t have an abortion. Even abortion would have been better than for her son to marry my mother.”

(Moreau’s own attitude to abortion is straightforward. In 1971 she risked prosecution as one of 343 well known Frenchwomen to publicly acknowledge having had an abortion.)

In 1936, Anatole was declared bankrupt and lost his hotel and restaurant. “As a child you don’t really pay attention to talk about money, but I couldn’t ignore it. And one day my mother took me and my little sister, who is ten years younger than me, to England. We had a bungalow in Hove, and later in Littlehampton. I joined the Brownies, and we used to go to the cinema, which had been forbidden in France.”

Her mother never explained why they left France. “But when war was declared she had a retour de flamme. She said, ‘We have to go back.’ It took about six days to cross back to Calais because of all the submarines. And when we arrived in Paris everyone said, ‘You English are going to be killed by the Germans.’”

Kathleen was sent to Drancy – from where many others were sent to concentration camps. She returned to Paris, but had to sign in every day at the local police station.

In the course of the war, Jeanne took part in the black-market run from Paris to Brittany. That wasn’t all. “Out of arrogance, my friends and I made little yellow stars and wore them. The teachers went mad and my father was angry. They were all frightened to death.”

Compared with that, it seems relatively insignificant that she bunked off Greek lessons to go to the theatre with friends. But that’s how she decided she wanted to be an actress, at a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. “This character was so obstinate and stubborn, saying no and refusing to obey. I thought, ‘That’s it!’

“I was dedicating my life to art. Theatre was a kind of… there’s a word in French, vocation?”

“So I went to the school of dramatic arts and then a young actress was needed to play Natasha in Chekhov. I got the part, and I had my picture on the front page of France-Soir, the evening paper. That’s how my father found out that I was acting. He was very angry.”

To be precise: he hit her. But she forgives him.

“You have to understand, he was from a peasant family, born in 1887. Being an actress was like being a whore. Now, I thank him. He made things difficult but it forced me to go further.”

When she was 21, Moreau married an actor, Jean-Louis Richard, just a day before giving birth to their son, Jerome. Soon after, Orson Welles saw her on stage and invited her to a party. She accepted. “Many years later, he said, you didn’t notice how attracted I was to you? And I said, ‘No, I only saw an icon, a genius.’ He said, ‘We lost everything.’ But I said, no, we have our friendship.”

I don’t say anything, but wonder how consoling Welles found that.

Arriving home late, that night, she found her husband waiting up with her in-laws. They divorced soon after.

Since then, Moreau has had many lovers, including Marcello Mastroianni and Lee Marvin. Pierre Cardin, who lived with her for years, made a speech on the occasion of her joining the Academie des Beaux-Arts. “In Venice, in the Hotel Danieli,” he said, “in that large room where Musset and Georges Sand lived, we made love, our bodies wrapped around each other. Is there a more beautiful way to live?”

Vanessa Redgrave named Moreau as correspondent in her 1967 divorce from Tony Richardson. Not for nothing did Luis Bunuel, whom Moreau called her “père espagnol”, tell her that if she was his daughter he’d lock her up.

One of her most celebrated affairs was with Louis Malle. She’d already made several mainstream films when the would-be director, then just 24, approached her. “He came backstage one night and said, ‘I’ve been filming with Cousteau, underwater. That’s all I’ve done. But I’ve bought the rights to a book, and I want to make a film, and I’d like you to be the star.”

The film would have a tiny budget, he said. He’d use a hand-held camera, no makeup and little in the way of lighting. “I thought, God, isn’t that marvelous?” recalls Moreau.

Her agent advised against working with Malle. “He said, ‘This guy has only been filming fishes underwater! What does he know?’” She sacked the agent.

Her affair with Malle ended after they filmed a second film together. Les Amants included a sex scene that, though it showed only her face and hands, caused a scandal. Shooting that scene killed the relationship. “The more I gave to him as a director – the more I opened up to that character on screen – the less was left of our personal relationship.”

Acting, Moreau insists, is not about exposing yourself for pleasure. “It’s about creating something. When you first begin, of course, there is an impulse to expose yourself. But little by little you come to feel responsible. There are parts I refused because I didn’t want to project a certain image of women. We live in a man’s world. When I was 45, I got a lot of offers to play women who were jealous of their daughters, or alcoholics. And I said, no, I’m not going to do that.”

(Not only for those reasons, she’s turned down several cracking parts. Some that did not interest her went instead to Jean Simmons in Spartacus, Sophia Loren in El Cid, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, and Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

As well as acting, she’s directed films herself. Of the male directors she’d worked with, only one offered encouragement. “Orson told me you have to be obsessed to make a film. The story has to obsess you. He knew what I wanted to do and he said, ‘You should make it.’

“Francois Truffaut didn’t like the idea. I was his actress, you see. He read my script and he wrote all over it. I said, ‘But it’s your film now, it’s not mine any more.’” They didn’t speak again for five years.

I ask why she hates to look back. “Nostalgia is for people who have lost their curiosity. The cliché is that life is a mountain: you go up, you reach the top, then you go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.”

There’s so much more I want to ask. But the publicity people have arrived with a troop of Turkish journalists, and I have to make way. I stand, shake her hand, and leave the room.

Wandering through the corridors of the palatial hotel, I realise that my face has flushed. Moreau turns out not to be a lunatic, but she’s no less adorable than she was as Catherine, back in 1962. And that’s really something. Other sex symbols might feel oppressed by the depredations of time: Moreau carries on regardless.

Reaching the exit, I halt. Why not go back? Why not hang around while the others interview her?

I do, and find her surrounded. There are seven women journalists and one man.

One asks about the new film, and the demanding young director, Francois Ozon. “He is so obstinate,” says Moreau, “but charming. I like to shoot fast; one, two, that’s it. And he said, ‘You know what? That’s fantastic. But I think you should do another.’ He reminds me of Jean Renoir who would clap his hands and say, ‘Wonderful, wonderful! Let’s have another!’”

One of the women says: “Orson Welles described you as the greatest actress in the world…”

Moreau smiles. “Well, he is responsible for what he said, not me. What do you want me to say, that he is right? I don’t think that anyone is the greatest at anything. I like compliments, but not too much, because I have my own voice inside telling me if what I have done is good or bad.”

Another reporter notes that actresses often have trouble finding good parts to play after they turn 40.

“English actors don’t have that problem,” says Moreau, pointing at me as if at the most powerful casting director in the UK. “Ask this young man. Judi Dench is no spring chicken. In the US, people look younger and younger all the time. But the world is made of people of different ages.”

The journalist who asked the question is young, blonde, and pretty. Moreau addresses her firmly. “A grandmother was a child and a lover once. If you take someone and say, ‘Oh, she’s a grandmother,’ you are fucking wrong. You might be a grandmother too, one day, but you will never forget the face that you have now.”

After the interview, Moreau poses for photographs with several of the journalists, including “la blonde” and a young man who beams awkwardly before asking, and receiving, permission to put an arm round her. Then she wanders over to me. “He came back,” she announces. “That’s what men are like.”

I regret to report that, as Moreau is ushered away to receive her award, I flush again.

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