JEANNE MOREAU 1928-2017

                              

                              Jules et Jim (1963)                                        Jeanne Moreau (2005)

It is a little surprising to find that someone of whom it has been said that she “exudes Frenchness from her last molecule” (Guardian, 1.11.2001), has a “Gauloises-saturated voice” and was “the Queen of the French New Wave” (Guardian, 31.7.17) had a mother who came from Oldham. Kathleen Buckley was a dancer who joined the Tiller Girls and eventually the Folies Bergere, where she met Anatole Moreau, a café owner. They married and produced a daughter, Jeanne, who was born in Montmartre. Naturally, despite her French childhood, Jeanne retained her mother’s mother tongue, to the extent that, in interviews, she frequently described herself as ‘half French, half English’

At first, Jeanne wanted, literally, to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a dancer; but a visit to Phedre at the Comedie Francaise changed her mind. “I didn’t feel like being the one who just watches. I wasn’t born for obscurity. I knew at once I wanted to be an actress”. Despite her father’s disapproval (he called her a whore), she entered the Conservatoire National Superieure d’Art Dramatique at the age of 18, and was eventually offered a contract by the Comedie Francaise, whose leading actress she became in 1947. With her departure in 1952 there followed a series of major theatrical roles – at the TNP (Theatre National Populaire) alongside Gerard Philippe in Le Cid; as the Sphinx in Jean Cocteau’s La Machine Infernale; as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion and as Maggie in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof directed by Peter Brook.

It was in this last that she was spotted by rising young film director Louis Malle and cast in the darkly atmospheric thriller L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) (1958): one of the ‘opening shots’ of the ‘New Wave’. Many thought this to be Moreau’s first screen appearance; it was in fact her twentieth. She had been playing superficial commercial roles since 1949, totally unremarked. With the possible exception of Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Hands Off the Loot) (1954), as moll to Jean Gabin’s ageing gangster. But Malle saw her differently. He put away the cosmetics.

                                                ‘Lift to the Scaffold’  (1958)

“After years of having make-up artists covering up her looks in a desperate attempt to force her to conform, suddenly she became a real woman”. All of which helped create the distinctive blend of intelligence and sexuality which we associate with her.

But there was more to come. In 1949, Jeanne had married Jean-Louis Richard, whom she had met at drama school. Jean-Louis, an actor, writer and director, was closely allied with the emerging ‘Nouvelle Vague” (New Wave), and numbered amongst his friends Francois Truffaut, Boris Vian, Francesca Soleville, and a certain Serge Rezvani.  Of Persian/Russian origin, Serge had moved with his wife Daniele from Paris to the hamlet of La Garde-Freinet in the Var, where they became the neighbours and close friends of Jeanne and Jean-Louis.

      

                                             Serge Rezvani                     Abstract Composition 1951

After a disastrous childhood as an immigrant, Serge had risen to prominence as an artist in post-war Paris, but was looking for a new way forward. At the end of the fifties he started to write songs to entertain his wife, accompanying himself on a guitar he had been given as a present. He said, “I wanted to sing, but I played the guitar very badly and could not bring myself to sing other people’s songs. So I learned three or four chords and the words just came. My great friend Jean-Louis Richard, the husband of Jeanne Moreau, loved my first song and started singing it. And then another. Out of sheer inspiration and with no training I realised I was keeping a sort of diary in song”.

As Jeanne herself said in an interview in Liberation in 2002, this select little circle met regularly either in Paris or le Var to sing, eat and have fun; sometimes hiring an old banger to drive all night to Brittany for a glimpse of the sea, whilst singing Charles Trenet and Rezvani songs, and sometimes putting on small soirees at home. Rezvani writes, “I would bring my latest songs. We ate spaghetti and played cards, with the loser punished by having to stand on the table and sing, and do the washing-up’.

It was this happy-go-lucky atmosphere that Francois Truffaut was part of. He loved Serge’s songs, and took a fancy to one of them in particular, as he felt it was cut out for the film he was currently working on.

Actually, it was not. Rezvani had composed Le Tourbillon (The Whirlwind) seven years previously as a sort of chronicle of the decidedly erratic relationship of Jeanne and Jean-Louis. Those familiar with the words of the iconic song (On s’est connus, on s’est reconnus, on s’est perdus de vue, on s’est retrouves, puis on s’est separes) (We got to know one another, got to know one another again, lost sight of each other, found each other again, and then separated) will recognise its perfect fit with the theme of Jules and Jim: the story of an ‘eternal triangle’.

As it happened, Le Tourbillon was not even part of Truffaut’s original plan for the film. During a break in filming because of a technical hitch (a technician had died in a helicopter crash, plus they were running out of money), crew morale was low. Truffaut found a way to fix it. “On va chanter!” (Let’s have a song!). Accordingly, Rezvani was summoned, with his guitar, together with a sound engineer hired for the day, and the sequence was shot live. It is the only sequence in the film to be so. When it came to choosing the best take, Truffaut ignored accuracy and went for the one with the most life. As a result this song, composed well before Jules et Jim and for a completely different reason, became the symbol, not only of the film, but almost of Francois Truffaut and the New Wave itself!

She was wearing rings on every finger,
Lots of bracelets around her wrists,
And she sang with a voice
Which beguiled me immediately.
She had opal eyes,
Which fascinated me, which fascinated me.
And the oval of her pale face
Of a femme fatale who was fatal to me {2x}.
We met, we recognized each other,
We lost touch with each other, then all over again,
We met again, we warmed each other up,
Then we left each other.
On our own we went back
Into the swirl of life
One night I saw her again, oh my,
It’s been ages already {2x}.
To the sound of the banjos, I recognized her.
This curious smile which had appealed to me so.
Her so fatal voice, her beautiful pale face
Moved me more than ever.
I got drunk while listening to her.
Alcohol makes you forget about time.
I woke up feeling
Kisses on my burning hot forehead {2x}.
We met, we recognized each other,
We lost touch with each other, then all over again,
We met again, we left each other,
Into the swirl of life.
We went on spinning
Both entwined
Both entwined.
Then we warmed each other up.
On our own we went back
Into the swirl of life
One night I saw her again, oh my,
She fell into my arms again.
When we’ve met,
When we’ve recognized each other,
Why lose touch then,
Lose touch again ?
When we’ve found each other again,
When we’ve warmed each other up,
Why leave each other then ?
So we both went back
Into the swirl of life
We went on spinning
Both entwined
Both entwined.

As for Jeanne Moreau, Jules et Jim turned her from national treasure to global icon, the very epitome of Frenchness; a heady combination of passion and intelligence whom no director could ignore. And they queued up. Orson Welles; Antonioni; Luis Bunuel; Joseph Losey, to name but four.

                                                             Serge Rezvani

Serge Rezvani, (who is now 89 and lives in Corsica), went on to become one of the world’s greatest ever ‘touches-a-tout’ (jack-of-all-trades). Once a successful painter, after seven years of being what Truffaut called “un auteur-compositeur terriblement original” (an incredibly original writer/composer), he decided to hang up his guitar. However, he acknowledges the crucial role of ‘chanson’ in his life. “J’ai toujours eu la nostalgie de l’écriture. Je suis arrivé à écrire par les chansons et j’ai éprouvé le sentiment d’une grande délivrance le jour où, grâce à elles, j’ai trouvé la voie”. (‘I’ve always wanted to write…I came to writing through ‘chansons’ and I felt an enormous relief the day when, thanks to them, I found the way forward’). Describing himself as “un pluri-indisciplinaire” (a person of multiple indisciplines), this creator of 150 chansons, innumerable paintings, 40 novels, 15 plays and 2 collections of poetry, claims that, despite having “plusieurs arcs a ma fleche” (several bows to my string), everything he does forms a whole. “J’emploie des moyens differents, mais tout ce que je fais est un ensemble.”

 Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jeanne, yet another lion of the French entertainment world lurked in the undergrowth, ready to pounce.

                                             Jacques Canetti

Jacques Canetti, born Nessim Jacques Canetti to a Sephardic Jewish family in Ruse, Bulgaria in 1909, had emigrated as a young man to Paris, where after graduating from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, he answered a newspaper advertisement from Polydor: “On cherche jeune home aimant la musique” (Seeking a young man who loves music), and, in 1931, landed his first job: sticking ‘labels with a hole’ on to records. From this humble beginning, during which he distinguished himself by persuading Marlene Dietrich to make her first record in French, the redoubtable Canetti rocketed up the ranks of the French music industry. In 1936 he became artistic director of Radio-Cite where he invented the talent-show (‘radio-crochet’), saying, “I only keep the best and the worst”. ‘Le Music-Hall des Jeunes’ began his long-term involvement with French chanson; and the switchboards were jammed as he introduced Edith Piaf to a stunned audience. After World War II he became artistic director at Polydor/Philips, and, in 1947, decided to capitalise upon his special flair for nurturing talent by opening the now legendary Theatre des Trois Baudets – a sort of artistic launch-pad which became the seedbed for some of the greatest names French chanson has ever known. We are talking Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Guy Beart, Serge Gainsbourg, Francis Lemarque, Felix Leclerc and Juliette Greco, to name but seven. It is said that Philips were able to build a new factory on the strength of Brassens’ record sales. A hard businessman, Canetti nevertheless believed in encouraging his artists. When Boris Vian received an icy reception, Canetti accosted him in the wings: “It’s you who are right; not the audience”. In 1963, however, he decided to leave Philips (“On avait engage Johnny Halliday derriere mon dos” (They took on Johnny Halliday behind my back), and founded his own company, Productions Jacques Canetti.

My memory is fading / I no longer remember very well Because he was a real musician/ He gestured a lot with his hands/ Everything between us started/With a very long kiss / On that bluish vein in the wrist / A long, endless kiss.

My memory is fading/I no longer remember very well/What his first name was And what was his name/He called. I called./What was he called?/However it’s insane how I liked/To call him by his name.

My memory is fading/I no longer remember very well/What colour his eyes were./I don’t think they were blue./Were they green, were they grey?/Were they greeney-grey?/Or did they change colour all the time/For a yes or a no?

My memory is fading/I no longer remember very well/Was he living in this old hotel/Crammed with musicians/While he… while I…/Were partying/All those saxes, all those clarinets/Which made my head spin.

My memory is fading/I no longer remember very well/Which of us wearied of the other/First?/Was it me? Was it him?/Was it me or him?/All I know is that since then/I no longer know any who I am.

My memory is fading/I no longer remember very well/And now, after all these sleepless nights/I have nothing left./Only the little tune he hummed every day/Whilst shaving.

 It was then that he spotted Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillon in Jules and Jim. He promptly offered her her first album, consisting entirely of songs written by Serge Rezvani, and called 12 Chansons de Bassiak (Cyrus Bassiak (‘bassiak’, literally ‘tramp’ in Russian) being the stage name which Rezvani had adopted to differentiate his songs from his other work. According to Rezvani, the opening track, J’ai la memoire qui flanche (My memory is fading) was the trigger which drove him to write his first play. The album won the coveted Grand Prix de L’Academie Charles-Cros in 1964, and her second, 12 Nouvelles Chansons de Bassiak, did the same in 1966.

                             Jeanne Moreau gives her views on ‘chanson’

Does Jacques Canetti want to turn you into a music-hall star? That is, are you going to go on stage and do what Madame Greco or Madame Piaf did?

Jeanne:I have no idea. All I know is, that without Monsieur Canetti I should never have made this record. That’s because I was terrified, more terrified than I’ve ever been; and during the recording session I was really nervous, something the like of which I had never experienced before. If he hadn’t been there, I couldn’t have done it. That’s to say, the musicians were really amazing.

Is it harder than acting?

Jeanne: You must be joking! Apart from anything else, I’m just not used to it. I mean to say, the voice is a kind of instrument; on top of that, when you perform with an orchestra, you are surrounded by instruments which are in perfect control of themselves, and which make exactly the sound you expect. They have a kind of  hidden quality which I did not really understand and was totally unprepared for.

Are you trying to say something particular with a ‘chanson’? i.e., do you believe that, in a ‘chanson’, you can express yourself as strongly and as violently as you would in a dramatic role?

Jeanne: Of course. Absolutely. I’m convinced of it. I’m a regular music-hall goer, I listen to practically every new record that comes out, there’s no escaping it.

What is your favourite ‘chanson’?

Jeanne: It’s a love song called Neither too soon nor too late.

 

c  Pat Harvey  September 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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