Jeanne Moreau & Louis Malle: A Night at the Pacific Film Archive

Every great movie star is unique, but few achieve the respect, at least among serious cinephiles, that Jeanne Moreau enjoys. Like all great stars, she’s blessed with beauty, talent, and charisma, has worked hard at her craft, and was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In her case, the place and time were France at the birth of the New Wave.

Last night I visited the Pacific Film Archive for a double bill of Jeanne Moreau films directed by Louis Malle. Although Moreau’s performances were the reason for the screenings–they’re part of the series Jeanne Moreau: Enduring Allure–I attended because of Malle. How could I resist a chance to see his first two narrative features? After all, I’d never seen a Malle film that wasn’t at least near-great. At least I didn’t until last night.

Elevator to the Gallows

Malle’s first feature falls into that near-great category. This Hitchcockian crime thriller lacks one important element of the genre: a protagonist we can root for. I know that makes me sound like a cheerleader for Hollywood commercialism, but bear with me. Without a character we can care about, a film can have no real suspense, and without suspense, a thriller lacks thrills.

In lieu of suspense, Malle gives us dark humor and ironic detachment. Oddly enough, that’s sufficient. We watch a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, and we enjoy his suffering. We watch two young lovers steal the murderer’s car and go off to commit additional crimes. The female half of this couple (Yori Bertin) comes closest to being a sympathetic character, if only because she’s motivated by young love–something we’ve all experienced. And we get Jeanne Moreau as the murderer’s lover, wandering the streets wondering where he has gone.

Oddly, considering that this picture made Moreau a star, her scenes are the weakest in the film. She just wanders the streets of Paris, horribly love-sick, asking people if they’ve seen her man. But in the last third we find out her identity, and with that her character and her performance becomes much more interesting.

Malle’s wisely hired Miles Davis to score Elevator to the Gallows. The jazz is hot, brilliant, and gives the film a forward-pushing excitement that goes beyond anything that Bernard Herrmann ever gave Hitchcock (and coming from me, that’s almost sacrilege). Jazz is an extremely American art form, yet it took the French New Wave to bring out its cinematic promise.

The Lovers

Malle’s second narrative feature, his second collaboration with Moreau, and the second film the PFA screened last night, doesn’t even approach near-great. The best thing I can say for it is that it finally comes together in the third act.

Moreau plays the bored wife of a successful newspaper publisher. They live in an isolated country home, but she escapes to Paris as often as she can, allegedly to visit her best friend there. With the friend’s help, she’s really going to spend quality time with her lover.

Malle and screenwriter Louise de Vilmorin (working from a novel by Dominique Vivant) weigh the story heavily against her husband. He’s remote, unaffectionate, and boring. On the other hand, so is her lover–judging from what little we see of him. For that matter, Moreau’s character isn’t all that exciting, either.

Things pick up about halfway through the picture, when she happens upon another man (Jean-Marc Bory) in a "meet cute" sequence that would do any Hollywood hack proud. But de Vilmorin and Malle handle their slow falling in love with a realistic flair. The film climaxes (pun unintentional, but appropriate) in a very romantic sex scene that was shockingly graphic for 1958–even for France.

The Lovers occasionally uses an omnipotent, third-person narrator to explain the back story and tell us what’s going through the characters’ minds. I hated this technique in Little Children and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and I didn’t like it here, either. If I want fiction to tell me what the character is thinking, I’ll read a novel. I want film to show me what the character is thinking. In Malle’s defense, he uses narration, if not sparingly, than at least not constantly.

One other complaint, which really isn’t Malle’s fault: The subtitles were awful. They were printed in very large letters, but in an odd font that made them hard to read, anyway. They also weren’t bright enough to stand out against light backgrounds. And whole sentences went unsubtitled.