Moreau And The Red Flood

The archetype of the prostitute - an avatar of the sexualised, threatening woman - has consistendy informed Jeanne Moreau's star image. She has played prostitutes, strippers or madams in numerous films, including Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Eua (1962), The Trial (1963), Le plus vieux métier du monde (1967), Joanna Francesca (1975) and QuereUe (1982). Part of her childhood was spent in a cheap Parisian hotel 'with whores and so on'; when she told her father she wanted to act, he replied that To be an actress was to be a whore'.10 Later, as a successful star in the 1960s, she felt herself to be demonised by the French press for her frank attitude to sex both on and offscreen: 'they think I'm some kind of monster, the scarlet woman of Babylon'.11 The term 'monster' implies that Moreau can not only be seen as violent or cruel, but also as formless, uncontrolled, inhuman. This amorphous threat is associated, in Theweleit's terminology, with class, and forms part of the nexus 1 Erotic woman - unfeeling woman - vulgar woman - whore/proletarian woman [...] woman on the attack!}2

When the young Moreau was asked what her ideal theatrical role would be, she chose Eliza in P\'gmalion\ an unruly working class woman who is trained to pass as a 'white countess'. H she had not made a career in acting, she claims that she would have worked 'in the fields, on a farm'.13 This association with rural, working-class origins (her father's background) was later partially obscured by her status as a fashion icon in the 1960s and early 1970s. But her lover of that time, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, still referred to her as 'a simple farming

5- R. Vadim, Bardot, Deneuve and Fonda: The Memoirs of Roger Vadim, London, Hodder and Stoughton, New English Library, 1987, p.214.

6* Ibid., pp.209 and 205. For more on 'radiance' and female stars, see Chapter 8.

7* M. Gray, La Moreau: A Biography of Jeanne Moreau, London, Warner Books, 1995, pp.viii-ix.

12* Theweliet, op. cit., p.79, italics in original.

girl'.14 Moreau can also be seen to embody the land via her acting style, which is often referred to as natural or earthy. Her rasping, cigarette-stained voice, which made her a singing star in the sixties, also contributes to the warmth of her persona and to her 'visceral' appeal.15 She is thus linked to the guts, the inner workings of the body, but not explicitly to motherhood. In fact, Moreau is very far from being an earth mother. Maternity is not part of her persona, while erodcised bodily display definitely is. Already in the fifties, she appeared naked or semi-naked in films such as Les Amants (1958) and La Reine Margot (1954), and in the sixties she posed nude for Playboy.16 Yet, in marked contrast to Deneuve, an icon of beauty, Moreau has been described by press, actors and directors as ugly, with her down-turned mouth and baggy eyes.17 In the sixties, American Vogue described her as 'Sexy, smouldering, yet "plain" l18 Historically, her eroticised image, although first established in the fifties, has most often been taken as evocative of the 1960s. One of the faces of the French new wave, she is also considered Em embodiment of women's liberation (despite never presenting herself as direcdy interested in feminism). She was one of many French actresses, including Signoret and Deneuve, to sign the 1971 'Manifeste des 343' in favour of the right to legal abortion. However, although there is a specific context for Moreau's star image (see below), it also conforms to a pervasive and largely dehistoricised myth of Wbman. Writing about her most celebrated and controversial film, Les Amants, François Truffaut declared that 'il s'agit moins ici d'unefemme d'aujourd'hui que de lafemme en généraT,19

From the very first sequence, Les Amants mobilises water imagery as a symbol for female sexuality. During the opening credits, the camera moves slowly across a map depicting several waterways. Following the line of a stream, it passes the 'Lac d'indifferenct? and comes to rest on a confluence, where three tributaries run into a large river bearing the legend 'Dangereuse'.20 Both linguistically and topographically, the map suggests the development of sexual awareness, from a still and circumscribed space (the lake) and a tidy, channelled stream, to a large and threatening body of water. The figuring of the female body and its desires as a series of waterways is maintained throughout the film, in which Moreau plays Jeanne, a bored bourgeois wife and mother. At the start of the film, Jeanne occupies the position of the white woman: we see her embracing her daughter, visiting her husband's workplace, wearing white. But the narrative charts her sexual awakening and her abandonment of house, husband and daughter in the throes of desire and passion. The white woman will reveal herself to be the locus of unsuspected depths and powerful floods. As Theweleit notes, the metaphor of the flood 'engenders a clearly ambivalent

16* A body double was used for some scenes in La Reine Margot.

17- See, for example Paris Match, 4 June 1960, pp.24-35.

19* 'it's not about a woman of today so much as woman in general', F. Truffaut, writing in Arts, September 1958, cited in Fii a Films: Les Films de ma vie, publicity material for video of Les Amants.

20* 'Lake of indifference'; 'Dangerous'.

state of excitement. It is threatening, but also attractive'. Against the intoxicating but wild flood stands the monolith of patriarchy, controlling and reactionary: 'Nothing is to be permitted to flow, least of all "Red floods'".21 It is notable, in this context, that in Germany the scenes showingjeanne's daughter were cut, since 'it was not acceptable for a married mother to have an affair'.22 The white woman should be sacrosanct and should not deviate from her idealised, desexualised status.

We can chart Jeanne's sexual awakening by means of the water imagery which, none too subdy, runs through Les Amants. When Jeanne, dressed in white, first meets Bernard (JeanMarc Bory), the man with whom she will have an affair, her car has broken down by a canal. This smooth and constrained waterway is followed by a trickling stream, into which she drives Bernard's car. The feelings which were held in check are gradually un-dammed. Hence Jeanne's hysterical laughter when she returns home with Bernard, a laughter which is uncontrolled and exaggeratedly sustained in Moreau's performance, as if an internal check has been broken. She is, moreover, laughing at her husband, in a repudiation of his authority over her body.23 Moreau's performance here, with the emphasis on repetition and a loss of control, prefigures her performance of orgasm in the film's most controversial sequence. In the build-up to that moment, we are presented with more water imagery: Jeanne running a bath, Jeanne and Bernard meeting at night by a roaring water wheel in the garden, the two of them draining their glasses simultaneously, and then crossing a bridge over a waterfall, where they kiss for the first time. The water symbolism in effect narrates Jeanne's shift from white woman to Red, and the dissolution of her previous inhibitions in ever-increasing streams of desire. She and Bernard drift down the millstream in a boat, and later (after the central sex scene) take a bath together in the house. The bath scene is a final repudiation of the constraint and control of the white woman. Again, Moreau laughs, this time as Bernard joins her in the water. Bathing, with its connotations of cleanliness and purity, has become a sexualised experience, just as tap water, 'the material incarnation of the antisexual abstraction "white woman" ("pure mother"; "white countess-nurse")',24 here becomes a flood of liberating waves. The timid, controlled streams of the canal or the tap have given way to the 'oceanic feeling' of orgasm,25 a kind of universalised image of the flowing, sexually uninhibited woman.

The identification of Moreau's star image with sexual pleasure and 'oceanic feeling' originates above all in her performance of orgasm in Les Amants. Lying naked on a bed while Bory's head disappears off screen in a suggestion of cunnilingus, Moreau repeatedly gasps 'Mon amour', louder and louder, her eyes shut and her mouth half open, in a pose

21* Theweleit, op. cit., p.230. The 'Red floods' spoken of here are communist uprisings, but also more generally, images of the working class as a flood, a tide or a stream.

22- Gray, op. cit., p.40. Gray continues: 'Luckily Hitler's decree that a woman unfaithful to her husband must die before the end of the film had lapsed!' Other countries, including Britain, cut various scenes.

23* Theweleit describes the Red woman as laughing uncontrollably at men in op. cit., p.67.

25- See ibid., pp.251-4. Theweleit takes the term from Romain Rolland and Wilhelm Reich.

that prefigures Sylvia Kristel's enacting of orgasm in soft porn cinema.26 The cunnilingus implied here is reiterated, along with the fluid figuring of Moreau's body, in the later scene where Bory dips his face into the cold bathwater. Moreau is, in this film, quite simply a body of water.

The 'oceanic' or orgasmic within Moreau's star image was still being evoked over thirty years after Les Amants, in La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer (1991), a performance that won Moreau her first César for best actress. Playing the supposedly aristocratic con artist Lady M., Moreau gives vent to a stream of brilliandy vulgar insults and jokes, and speaks of life as being 'beau comme un orgasme.'27 At the start and the conclusion of the film, we see her walking in the sea in an attempt to rejuvenate her ageing body. Like Jeanne in Les Amants, Lady M. is an embodiment of 'the woman-in-the-water; woman as water; [...] woman its the enticing (or perilous) deep'.28 But the film is also a knowing and affectionate reflection on stardom, and on Moreau's persona as the Red woman of post-war French cinema. Seated in front of a mirror at the start of the film, Moreau declares, 'Je suis une vieille salope\29 We are later shown photos of her at various points in her career (aged seventeen, twenty-three and forty-two). Dressed in red, with red hair and lipstick, she gropes, cackles and swears her way through the film. In a clear reference to Les Amants, she grins broadly as her equally aged companion, Pompilius (Michel Serrault), goes down on a young woman. The taboo theme of elderly sexuality is energetically explored, either as pathetic (Lady M. shows signs of senility and confuses present men with lovers of the past) or, more often, as grotesque: Pompilius declares, ' Vous êtes une truie en chaleur [...]. Votre sexe rassis se met à capoter devant les jeunes mâles'.30 Despite her age, Lady M. is nonetheless a powerful, manipulative and, at times, threatening character. The violence associated with the castrating ferocity of the Red woman is evoked when, lost in a crowd of men at the close of the film, she rages, lJe voudrais leur couper la queue à tous, et former un Himalaya de bites'.31 But for the most part, Moreau's star image remains 'oceanic' rather than explicitly castrating. At the close of La Vieielle qui marchait dans la mer, the street full of men swiftly dissolves into a shot of blue seawater and the film ends, as it began, with Lady M. walking in the sea in Guadeloupe. Beside her is a young companion, of whom she wonders, ' Je me demande le goût qu 'elle a, la queue de mon petit Lambert''?2 Even at the age of 63, Moreau is here associated with voracious (oral) sexuality, with bodily fluids and streams of desire.33

26* See Chapter 6.

27* 'beautiful as an orgasm'. We might note the identification between star and role implied here by the name of her character (M), as is also the case in Les Amants (Jeanne).

30* 'You are a sow in heat. Your stale sex flaps open whenever you see a young male'.

31« 'I'd like to cut off all their cocks and make a Himalaya of pricks'. As Julie in La Mariée était en noir (1967), Moreau pursues and murders several men. For an account of the Red woman as threatening castration, see Theweleit, op. cit., pp.70-79.

32* 'I wonder what my little Lambert's cock tastes like'. This perhaps has a hint of castrating menace. 33* Compare the sexual energy of her performance as Lili in The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1992).

The eroticisation of Moreau's image is clear, but what is her class status? Does that also conform to the archetype of the Red woman? Both on and off screen, Moreau's social image is ambiguous. Despite her rural, working-class origins, she has enjoyed the lifestyle of a global celebrity, including being chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce, wearing high-fashion clothes (designed by Cardin) and collecting objets d'art. Her large farmhouse, bought in 1963 and sold in the eighties, was featured in several magazine spreads, yet the house signifies not only luxury (the magazine features, the setting near St Tropez, the fashion and art kept within), but also a kind of return to the land and to Moreau's roots (she often cooked for guests herself, roamed the garden in bare feet, and shopped very carefully for produce).34 On screen, her roles have included the aristocratic and the bourgeois, as well as the proletarian. Her most iconic performances, however, have either emphasised sexuality over class codes (Les Amants, Jules et Jim, La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer) or have positioned her character as working class. Among the latter we find her role as the aspirational laundry worker Berthe, in Souvenirs d'en France (1975) and her triumphant return to the theatre as La Servante Zer^tne i11 1986, but Moreau's most famous working-class incarnation is as the maid in Buñuel's Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (1964).

In a reversal of the narrative from Les Amants, as Célestine in Le Journal d'une femme de chambre Moreau plays a Red woman who becomes white. The transformation here is both social and sexual, as the unsettlingly erotic chambermaid ends up a bourgeois wife. In so doing, she channels and tames the working-class sexuality that flows in dangerous streams through the film. Male working-class desire is portrayed as sadistic and violent, as personified by the fascistic gardener Joseph, who rapes and murders the young orphan Claire. Female working-class sexuality is in some ways comparable (Joseph tells Célestine that they are both alike, and she initiates sex with him before betraying him to the police), but is characterised above all as dirty. The aristocratic household that Célestine enters is a temple to obsessive cleanliness, where working-class women represent a form of contagion. From the outset, dirt is associated with both Claire and Célestine: Madame Monteuil, the frigid 'white countess' of the house, asks Célestine 'Est-ce que vous êtes très propre?', while her aged father, Monsieur Rabour, tells Claire ' T'es bien sale, tu sais',35 On her arrival, Célestine is asked to remove her dirty boots, which the old man later fantasises about cleaning. Hence 'the bodies of erotic women, especially proletarian ones, become so much wet dirt'.36

Célestine's 'Red' sexuality threatens to destabilise bourgeois codes of behaviour, particularly when she coyly teases Monsieur Monteil or insists on sleeping with Joseph before their proposed marriage. The threat represented by the body of the Red woman is most strikingly conjured up in the sequence where Célestine reads to Monsieur Rabour. The passage chosen concerns the Salome myth and, as such, evokes the castrating violence of the erotic woman. Moreover, although the text describes the head of John the

35- 'Are you very clean?'; 'You're really dirty, you know.'

Baptist, it does so by mobilising images of blood and hair which we can interpret as a hysterical and fearful reference to the female genitalia: 'L'horrible tête flamboie, saignant toujours, mettant des caillous de pourpre sombre aux pointes de la barbe et des cheveujc'.37 The association with Célesdne's sex is reinforced by the fact that while she reads this passage aloud, the camera shows Monsieur Rabour's hand caressing her stockinged legs, an object of fetishisric representation throughout the film and a part of the body contiguous with the invisible site of her own desire. Ultimately, however, the threat of Célestine's potentially savage sexuality is contained, and by marrying out of her class (the captain next door), she concludes the film as a white woman. The final image of Célestine shows her dressed in white, sitting by a window where snow is falling - a rare image in Moreau's Sialography of the assumption of pure, cold, bourgeois sexuality. For once, the flow has been frozen.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment