“Let’s have a Jeanne Moreau freak-out orgy.”

06/14/2010 10:25 AM |

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Jeanne Moreau made a lot of seminal movies in the 1960’s, for Truffaut, Antonioni, Welles and many others, but her feral contribution to Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966), a Jean Genet story (with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras), has acquired a deserved cult following all its own. Patti Smith, among others, has sung her praises: “Jeanne Moreau is really something,” said Smith, in 1977, speaking of this movie. “There’s this scene where she’s like a chaste schoolteacher superficially, but inside she’s like a barbed wire fence. There’s like this burly Italian… who walks through the fields with a big gold St. Christopher medal on his chest and his shirt open.. and there’s all this tension because you know they’re gonna do it and when they do, they don’t let you down. When they fuck it’s so heavy. It’s out in the field. He rips off her dress and she’s like an instant animal. He makes her crawl through the field barking like a dog and she’s got this chiffon dress on, which he rips to shreds.”

Tonight, the always-adventurous Queer/Art/Film series curated by Adam Baran and Ira Sachs is bringing Mademoiselle to the IFC Center, complete with an introduction by Wayne Koestenbaum, the author-as-dandy of seductive cultural studies like The Queen’s Throat, his intimate, connoisseur’s look at the world of opera and the opera fan, and Jackie Under My Skin, his ecstatic meditation on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I recently asked Koestenbaum a few questions about this infernal picture, which features some of the most vividly detailed wide-screen cinematography ever by David Watkin, and a performance from Moreau that can only be described as elemental.

The L Magazine: When did you first see Mademoiselle, and what effect did it have on you?

Wayne Koestenbaum: First saw it in the 1990s. Wish I’d seen it earlier. Moreau’s insouciant, cool, unperturbed criminality (combined with beauty, horniness, placidity, intensity, inwardness) shocked and moved me. She seemed blissfully immersed in her inner world of ritual, of compensatory, reparative acts—and I recognized (with a thrill of fellow feeling) her absorption in private economies of substitution and revenge.

The L: Let’s have a Jeanne Moreau freak-out orgy. Without looking at her filmography, what are the scenes and moments from her career that you remember most vividly?

Koestenbaum: Top moment: in Bay of Angels (1963), when Moreau is lying on the bed in the fleabag hotel, and she is whirling a toy-sized roulette wheel. She is so addicted to “gaming,” she can’t avoid the sport, even when alone. Twirling her private roulette wheel: a perfect simulacrum of masturbation. Enjoying her lucre-toy, alone in the hotel: a perfect image of what I’ve often romantically theorized as “hotel consciousness.” (Cf. my book Hotel Theory.)

The L: Tony Richardson, the film’s director, doesn’t have much of a reputation now; are there other films by him that you admire?

Koestenbaum: A Taste of Honey (1961) is a classic. No one should ever forget Rita Tushingham, its star. (Somehow I remember this film as Marnie [1964] meets A Patch of Blue [1965] meets Room at the Top [1959] meets Georgy Girl [1966], but I know I’m wrong.)

The L: Richardson was mainly gay, but he exchanged his wife Vanessa Redgrave for Moreau, on film in The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967) and in life. Moreau had earlier been involved with Pierre Cardin, even though he was also mainly gay. She gave one of her best performances for Jacques Demy, and has mainly worked in recent years for Josée Dayan. Can you offer your own take on Moreau and gayness?

Koestenbaum: Moreau and gayness: she embodies intelligent, super-saturated inhabiting of one’s own gender. She thrusts herself into “woman” with a vengeance, and without excessive stylization. Her wholehearted and unambivalent occupation of this position—this “woman” body and role—is so voluptuously and philosophically alive, and so inward (i.e. as if she were alone in the universe with no one watching and so she could do exactly what she wanted)—that she seems a perfect advertisement of any sensual position, including “gayness.” Perhaps that’s too abstract an answer? More concrete: Her lips are a liberation movement, and the philosophy behind that liberation movement.

The L: Marguerite Duras wrote the screenplay for Mademoiselle, from Jean Genet source material. Do you see similarities between these two as writers? Differences?

Koestenbaum: O.K., Duras + Genet. Duras obsessed her entire life about some early affairs; Genet obsessed his entire life about early crushes and cocks and assholes. They ravenously circle around their erotic idées fixes, without apology; and they consider “prose”—or “fiction”—as genres—to be merely occasions for making ravenous circles around hot nodes of desire. Again and again they dip into the same pot. Stylistically, they’re radically dissimilar: Duras is lean and unadorned and barely there—the sentences almost vanish while you read them. Genet’s sentences are lush, fruity, elaborate—he gets lost in his own metaphors, deliberately—and the sentences never disappear: they’re rocks.

The L: Fassbinder’s Querelle or Richardson’s Mademoiselle?

Koestenbaum: Querelle vs. Mademoiselle: Fassbinder’s spirit is much closer to Genet’s. Filthy. Mademoiselle is more detached, allegorical. And it’s in black and white. That’s a big difference. Of course, Moreau appears in both. Her sung rendition of Wilde’s song, “Each man kills the thing he loves…” is indelible—she touches the crossroads where Genet, Wilde, and Fassbinder meet.

The L: Can you draw a crooked line from Moreau’s Mademoiselle to Isabelle Huppert’s Piano Teacher? Moreau as Fetish/Fetishist versus Huppert as Fetish/Fetishist?

Koestenbaum: The line wouldn’t need to be very crooked. Huppert’s piano teacher and Moreau’s school teacher are both alluring sadists, well-dressed, homebodies, neat as a pin. They know their subjects. Huppert and Moreau share a penchant—in their screen roles—for heady criminality, like Faye Dunaway’s: a louche amorality. But Dunaway’s face always broadcasts its emotions—and bless her for it. Huppert and Moreau are more blank and sphinx-like. Their anger simmers.

The L: If Jeanne Moreau ordered you to kill a cute little bunny rabbit with your bare hands, would you do it?

Koestenbaum: I’d never kill a bunny rabbit, no matter who ordered me. I don’t eat rabbit. I worship rabbits. But I’d love to meet Moreau and talk to her about her genius. To thank her for it—for the generosity of her multitudinous appearances—her face (her lack of anxiety) always relaxes me. Is Moreau ever anxious onscreen? Doubt it.