‘Lumière’: An Actress Destined to Be in the Light

Jeanne Moreau’s first film as a director is showing for a week at Film Forum, newly restored and seven minutes longer than its 1976 U.S. release.

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By J. Hoberman

Movies directed by their stars are a genre unto themselves, one that includes first-person documentaries, avant-garde “psychodramas,” and self-portraits like Jeanne Moreau’s “Lumière” — a movie about a fictional actress in her prime.

“Lumière,” Moreau’s first film as a director, is showing for a week at Film Forum, starting March 17, newly restored and seven minutes longer than the 1976 version released in the United States.

Moreau doesn’t assume a role in “Lumière” so much as present herself. Not autobiographical, it is a film about acting, or what Yvonne Rainer called the “lives of performers.” Moreau’s character, Sarah, is a benign star orbited by three disparate colleagues. Laura (Lucia Bosè), an Italian actress about Sarah’s age, is married to a producer and oppressed by her social roles as wife, mother and daughter. Somewhat younger, Julienne (Francine Racette) is a narcissistic (or ambitious) stage actress being stalked by an even more narcissistic American star (Keith Carradine). And Caroline (Caroline Cartier), an insecure neophyte, is struggling with exploitative men and an emotionally abusive partner.

“Lumière,” which opened the Second International Festival of Women’s Films in 1976, provocatively scheduled before the New York Film Festival that year, is more matter-of-fact than polemical. Several men revolve around Sarah as well. These include the annoying young director who is also her lover (Francis Huster), a saintly older man (François Simon) who helped her survive a personal tragedy, and a moody novelist (Bruno Ganz) to whom she’s taken a fancy. Sarah’s colleagues seem hemmed in by men who are jealous, predatory and selfish, unable to fathom the female solidarity that the film celebrates. By contrast, she is independent.

As Sarah is in control of her life (and wardrobe), so Moreau appears confident in her direction of a large and talented cast. One of the busiest actors of her generation, whose résumé included work with some of the world’s greatest directors — Antonioni, Buñuel and Welles, among them — she doesn’t lack for visual ideas. (Curiously, the one movie Sarah cites is Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf,” a gothic tale of an artist’s descent into darkness that is the near opposite of “Lumière.”)

Fluid and assured, the movie unfolds in the days leading up to Sarah being presented with a lifetime achievement award — which, in terms of Moreau’s career, might almost be “Lumière.” Moreau as a filmmaker is less vain than honest in presenting herself as a universally admired professional. When she was interviewed by Richard Eder for The New York Times, she explained that, as a child, she used to sneak off to the theater: “I sat there in the dark and watched all these people in the light on the stage. I got so excited. I thought that I was not destined to be in the dark; my vocation was to be in the light.”

Onscreen, Moreau projects self-possession. In its final scene, “Lumière” illustrates another showbiz bromide: The show must go on — and it is Moreau’s show. Her resting-face frown may suggest dour determination, but her moments of levity are surprisingly generous. The “lumière” of the title is also, as the French critic Isabelle Jordan ended her review of the film, that of “the most beautiful smile in French cinema.”


Through March 23, Film Forum, Manhattan; filmforum.org.

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