The prime of Jeanne Moreau

The iconic actress - the greatest, Orson Welles said - confronts death in her latest film. But Sheila Johnston finds her relishing the arrival of another new wave of directors
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In François Ozon's new film, Time to Leave, a young man who has recently learnt that he has terminal cancer visits his grandmother at her country cottage. She is the only member of his family in whom he can confide. "Why me?" she asks him. "Because you'll die soon too," comes the brutal reply. Observe closely the actress's face at this moment; the transparency of emotion as the initial flicker of shock melts into an accepting, tender smile.

Later, in the night, the grandson - who is gay, incidentally - enters her room and asks to share her bed. "You know I sleep naked?" she asks. "It doesn't matter; I won't look," he replies, hopping in. The woman suddenly seems infinitely mysterious and desirable. Thescenes occupy fewer than 10 minutes of screen time, but they command the film, and their impact springs from the presence of one of the icons of cinema: Jeanne Moreau.

I have been asked by the Istanbul Film Festival to accompany her on a boat trip along the Bosporus. Moreau, 78, is a last-minute guest of honour in Istanbul. Alain Delon, who was to have been celebrated at the opening, had thrown a wobbly and failed to appear. Moreau, clearly, is made of sterner stuff. Even if she is a late substitute, she performs her duties with great elegance and enthusiasm.

Arriving early, I watch out for a vast entourage and at first don't recognise the tiny woman with tousled honey-coloured hair striding down the quay in the rain, alone except for an umbrella-holding aide. Once aboard, she buzzes around the ship on a tour of inspection, taking in the wood-panelled dining room, with its white-clothed tables and lifting up the lid of the grand piano.

Does she play? She says she cannot, although she had a notable singing career, including a concert with Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. Her voice is deep, lightly accented, with a register that ranges from a seigneurial rasp to a conspiratorial, smoky whisper. She's casually dressed, wearing no or very little make-up, deeply wrinkled but dazzling.

Rumoured to be capricious, she seems in good spirits in spite of the mizzle, and braves the wind on the deck for photographs against the magnificent city skyline. Then, settling at the bar, she signals that she is ready to receive me.

She is known to scorn promotional interviews, but I start by asking about Time to Leave, partly because it's her best role for a while, and partly because I'd heard the character was modelled on her. "Of course, François Ozon used me," she replies. "We've known each other since he started making films. I've seen all his work and we have a common friend. We'd have dinner together and travel to places, just for fun, for two or three days - once we went to Karl Lagerfeld's house in Biarritz. Then one day he called me and said, 'Do you mind playing the part of a grandmother?' I said I would hate that.

"I'd never played one before because usually they're so conventional. A grandmother is not a grandmother - what does that mean? She was a child, a young girl, a lover, a wife, a mother. A human being is all that." Suddenly, Moreau is animated. "If you take somebody and say, 'Oh, she's just a grandmother,' you're fucking wrong!" she says, thumping the counter.

"François and I, we constructed a story for her. Like her grandson, she's a maverick, rejected by the family. She had an incredible passionate love story with her husband and, when he died, she couldn't stay in the house. She had the means to travel and had affairs. One was with a black American working for Magnum. He gave her her first camera and she became a photographer too." Much of this - the Magnum photographer, for instance - is not mentioned in Time to Leave. "But you feel it," Moreau says. "That's what makes a film interesting; when a role is not just on the surface, not just a cameo."

At one point, her character says of the numerous vitamins she takes daily that this way, she will die in perfect health. It's a line I'd heard before from the actress herself, in interviews. Sleeping in the nude was another detail from life. Moreau smiles a little naughtily: "Well, it seems strange to get dressed to go to bed. It's the end of the day. It's freedom."

Freedom is a word she uses often. She has been married twice, each time briefly - to the actor Jean-Louis Richard, and the director William Friedkin. She was named as the co-respondent in Vanessa Redgrave's divorce from Tony Richardson, and there have been many lovers, including Louis Malle and Lee Marvin. When Moreau was elected the first female member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts five years ago, Pierre Cardin gave a extravagant speech recalling their torrid lovemaking in Venice. She has a son, Jerome, by her first marriage, but, she points out, no grandchildren.

She says she's a little chilly, and a young waiter rushes over with a blanket. He asks: does she need anything else? "I have everything I need," Moreau purrs, treating him to a 200-watt smile. It's said there are still men in her life. She looks her age, but still has the power to appear, at moments, endlessly seductive.

Her mother was a dancer from Oldham who went to Paris with the Tiller Girls in the 1920s and married a Montmartre café-owner. After a decade, the marriage faltered and Moreau's mother returned to England with Jeanne's younger sister just before war broke out. Jeanne stayed with her father in France during the Nazi occupation. They were interesting times. She recalls how, on one occasion, she flung herself into a ditch to avoid shelling. Something warm, wet and heavy fell on top of her: it was a corpse and, she thinks now, it saved her life.

Another scene etched on her memory is from the end of the war. "In a street I saw a very old German soldier. His clothes were torn apart; he had no uniform. To me, he was just a man. But people, cowards, were beating him to death."

In 1948, at 20, she joined the Comédie-Française, the prestigious company's youngest-ever member. Her father was unimpressed: "For him, being an actress was being a prostitute. I respect that and I didn't fight with him. I just went on living my own way. In fact, I'm grateful to him because it helped me a lot. Now, when I receive an award, in myself I think of him. I think, 'You see? You see what your daughter's doing? She worked well.'"

The theatre producer Gilbert Miller "prayed and begged" her, she says, to go to England, and she wonders what * * her life might have been had she done so (she still has family in Brighton). But she was under contract to the Comédie-Française, and then, as the Nouvelle Vague began to break, she became a muse for new young film-makers.

Three flamboyant signature roles set her style: the adulterous femmes fatales in Louise Malle's Lift to the Scaffold and Les Amants (both 1958) and, above all, the exuberant Catherine, powering a free-spirited ménage à trois in François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962). "Catherine was breaking a taboo, and that came naturally," Moreau says today.

All through the Sixties, she worked with the greats: Truffaut, Malle, Renoir, Buñuel, Antonioni, Losey. "I represented for them a sort of fantasy of what woman was, and they thought I could carry the burden." Orson Welles, with whom she worked on three films and one unfinished project, famously pronounced her the greatest actress in the world. Moreau shrugs: "Well, I could say thank you very much and I love the quote. But compliments I like not too much. They embarrass me. Because I have my own judge here inside of me. This is the voice I listen to." Asked which director she liked best, her reply is quintessential Moreau: "That," she says, "is like asking a woman who is her favourite lover."

As she entered middle age, directors no longer knew what to make of her. "When I became 40, 45, I started to have offers of women who were frustrated, or jealous of their daughter, or alcoholic, or depressed. I said, 'No. I'm not going to do that.' I didn't want to project to women that image of themselves, because we live in a man's world." The roles she reportedly turned down in the cause of this principle include the predatory Mrs Robinson in The Graduate and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Now, Moreau has rejuvenated her career by taking gambles with untried talent: her next film will, she says, be a modern version of Romeo and Juliet for a first-time French-Canadian director. During our conversation, she takes every chance to promote the Angers Festival, of which she is artistic director, as well as the annual 10-day summer school, for which she selects the students. Both events are dedicated to new film-makers.

Can any of them match the masters she worked with? "Why not? It's so easy now to make films with these little cameras, and there are a lot of new directors. And some are growing. When François Ozon started just a few years ago, everyone was shocked, and look at him now. These young film-makers know I'm ready to give them anything. We have the same passion for cinema, so we have something in common, which is ageless."

The mournful, hermetically sealed high-art cinema of the Sixties, typified by films such as Antonioni's La Notte, is over and should not be mourned, Moreau says. "The world has changed so much and luckily film-makers move on with it. Even if the heart of their plots is the same - love, sex, power, greed, jealousy, violence - the background is so different. You can't make a film today without thinking of the social and economic situation of the world, even if it's not a political story.

"In the streets, even now, students stop me sometimes to talk about Jules et Jim. They say, 'Oh, what a marvellous story.' I say, 'Do you remember the end? The end is terrible.' And you know what? I saw it again lately and there's something else in it. It's not only about an impossible relationship; there's the fact that it's set around the First World War and the characters are on different sides. That's what makes it so modern."

Moreau spots two skyscrapers on the shore that remind her of the World Trade Centre. She was in Toronto the day the towers fell, and she cried. "Sometimes I'm destroyed when I wake up in the morning and listen to the news. But violence is born from fear and fear is born from ignorance. Cinema is a way to communicate, to discover other people and life in a different culture. And then you also understand more about yourself."

It's a relief to realise that Moreau - unlike many artists of her time - has not entered her anecdotage. She has a stack of reminiscences, but she relates them with such gusto that they feel freshly minted. Unlike Catherine Deneuve - whose diaries were published last year, to general scorn - she has no plans for an autobiography. "I've been given a lot of money and I've given all the money back. I can write a script or a speech, but speak about me - I've tried and tried and I cannot. Maybe that's my mother's blood. Being English, she was not extrovert, but I still remember her perfume and the quality of her skin. Though she didn't speak much, when she took me in her arms, it was something.

"I did psychotherapy in the Seventies. I'm a very dark person, full of doubts and terrible visions - though less and less now. It was fascinating, and when I'd had enough of Freud, I discovered Jung, whom I much preferred. But it's too late for me to go back into analysis."

Moreau returns to Time to Leave, and the enigmatic final scene in which the main character, now emaciated (the actor, Melvin Poupaud, lost 20lb for the role) goes to the beach. "I love that sequence. He's surrounded by families, all these children playing. The day is greyish and then it ends. Night falls as the beach empties until just he is left. To me, it's not a downer; I don't find it sad and terrifying. It's as though he has disappeared in the light, in the sea, in the earth. It's very emotional, but we did it in a joyful way." She adds: "Some people are preoccupied by death. Dying is an adventure, just as birth is an adventure. You are alone and no one can share it with you."

Our vessel edges back into the quayside. It's time to leave. Moreau rises, smiling. "This is my first visit to Istanbul and I haven't seen a thing," she says. "But I was on a beautiful boat, I met people and had very interesting conversations. That's a lot. I'll visit the city another time."

I had come to this interview with the vague thought that this film might, perhaps, be Moreau's swansong. At the end, though, nothing seemed less appropriate than to be speaking of death with someone so vibrantly alive.

'Time to Leave' opens today


LES AMANTS (Louis Malle, 1958) In one of several landmark films with Malle, Moreau is a restless provincial society wife who abruptly decamps for a new life with a student. A succès de scandale, banned in several states in America, it (with Malle's Lift to the Scaffold, also 1958), propelled Moreau to stardom.

LA NOTTE (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961) Marcello Mastroianni plays a bored writer whose marriage lurches into crisis during a trip to Milan to visit a dying friend. Brooding on the alienation within and around her as she restlessly roams the city, Moreau breathed life into Antonioni's world-weary languor.

JULES ET JIM (François Truffaut, 1962) An exuberant love triangle between a capricious woman and her two lovers - one French, one Austrian - set before, during and after the First World War. Moreau's free-thinking Catherine seemed to sum up the unfettered spirit of the 1960s, but with an unforeseen dark side.

EVE (Joseph Losey, 1962) Often seen as Moreau's most extreme performance: she plays a temptress luring Stanley Baker away from his stale marriage. Butchered by the producers (Moreau, armed with a knife, had to prevent them from physically assaulting Losey), the film survives only in a truncated form.

DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (Luis Buñuel, 1964) A soignée Parisian takes a job as a maid in Normandy in the 1930s and tangles with her decadent employers. Moreau looked great (her outfit inspired Emmanuelle Béart's costume in François Ozon's 8 Women), but it proved best not to cross her duplicitous character.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (Orson Welles, 1966) Welles played the lusty yet tragic Falstaff in a drama drawn from several of Shakespeare's plays, but retold from the fat man's point of view. Moreau's friendship with Welles brought additional warmth to her role as Doll Tearsheet, the tavern wench who loves him.