[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
The personal style and vision evident in Jeanne Moreau’s directorial opus one has as much to do with movies, and with a career—and a life—on film, as with the so-called “real world.” The opening title sequence is a flashy and rhythmic clash of type-styles evoking the media hype of film advertising: names in lights, the calligraphy of stardom. Constantly throughout the film the language of movies becomes, or replaces, the language of life. Thomas, the has-been boyfriend being slowly eased out of Sarah’s life, “directs” her leavetaking from him in a prophetic early scene: “She kisses him and turns to go,” he says, as Moreau the actress does just that; and then, “she leaves…. Cut!”—and Moreau the director cuts. And just as movie talk replaces “real” talk, and montage replaces the duration of real time, so, in Lumière, movement is camera movement. The camera is virtually never still during the opening sequences, which form a present-tense prologue placing the remainder of the film firmly in the realm of memory. Moreau’s composition conveys the sharpness of painful memory, even while her ambling camera and almost random continuity carry with them the atmosphere of the process of human reflection. Sound often precedes image, as if inspiring it (in the archetypal creative act, the word of creation always precedes the object created): several sequences begin with a bridge of dark frames accompanied by a sound that will be explained only when the next image meets our eyes. So even while keeping us aware of her medium and its limitations, Moreau reminds us of its power of suggestion, its extension beyond mere light, into feeling and meaning.
The essential stylistic clash in the film is that the sharply drawn, high-contrast color composition doesn’t serve the same aesthetic purpose as the essentially impressionistic montage, whose selectivity and. studied discontinuity create an ambiguity quite remote from the visual precision of the director’s highly controlled delineation of shape. The shape most immediately relevant to the aesthetics of Lumière is the circle, reflective perhaps of the close-knit inner circle of women who make up the film’s core of characters, and perhaps of the wider sphere of their sexual liaisons. It would be easy to see the film and its circles as a fanciful depiction of women who are happiest with other women, and who are surrounded by a confining sphere of men on the make. But in fact the men in Sarah’s life are for the most part strong, brave, respectful lovers, ready to accept her independence, ready to endure hurt for her sake.
Sarah herself remarks on Grégoire Liberman’s courage with unintended irony when the bashful research biochemist shows up in discomforting semiformal attire at her award ceremony. She refers to his willingness to discomfort himself for her; but we know that he has just diagnosed himself as suffering from terminal lymphatic leukemia. His suicide soon afterwards recalls a tale Thomas has told earlier, of a scorpion who, surrounded by a ring of fire and unable to escape the heat, stings himself to death (“and we’re all splitting,” he adds, giving weight to his later “I’m splitting” during the agitated, desperate courage of his departure from Sarah’s house, after she has asked him to move out to make room for her affair with the poet Heinrich Grun). The circle surrounding the helpless scorpion, already associated with two ill-fated lovers of Sarah, is also related to the circle of movement described by the camera in Sarah’s first rendezvous with Grun. It begins as a follow shot that continues even after Sarah and Grun have sat down and there is no movement left to follow. It circles around behind the two and observes their conversation from behind their shoulders. When, meeting completed, Sarah rises to go, the camera retraces its movement in reverse, back along the circle, then follows her out of the park.
Circles are also crucial in the specific incidental images of the film, particularly those governing the relationship between Sarah and Grégoire. They compare their marksmanship and he proudly shows her the one accidental bulls-eye he scored with the Beretta she’s been practicing with for her work in a film. Later, he shows her under his microscope the disease cells on which he has been doing research. She thinks them lovely; and only later do we (and still later, she) learn he has been diagnosing his own fatal illness. This unrelenting interweaving of visual style with the dominion of death climaxes at the end of the film when Sarah, handling the Beretta on the set, is reminded of the dead Grégoire in a way that breaks down her strong resolve against the reality of the suicide, and causes her to crumble into tears in the middle of a screen test. “I’m sorry,” she whimpers, as the camera tracks slowly, respectfully back, away from the movie set and from the personal moment it didn’t expect to record. We are drawn back and away from the film and from Sarah’s life. It is as if Moreau herself were apologizing for being unable to withhold sentiment after all and keep the artistic mask in place. Her “screen test” is, perhaps, a metaphor for her “test” as a director. And she has nothing to apologize for.
Screenplay and direction: Jeanne Moreau. Cinematography: Ricardo Aronovitch. Editing: Albert Jurgenson. Music: Astor Piazzola.
The players: Jeanne Moreau, Lucia Bosé, Francine Racette, Caroline Cartier, Monique Tarbes, François Simon, Bruno Ganz, Keith Carradine, Francis Huster, Niels Arestrup, Jacques Spiesser.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow