Show People: New Wave queen on old shore: 60. Jeanne Moreau

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The Independent Culture
'MONSIEUR, I'm sorry, we don't have the little thing. How do you call . . . ?' Jeanne Moreau is looking for a tea strainer. 'You didn't make it with bags?' The pursed lips would suggest Lady Bracknell, if it were not for an undertow of amusement. 'Tea bags] I can do that myself.' The manager of her London hotel succeeds in implying that the preference is Miss Moreau's whim, but one that he will be only too happy to indulge, and glides off to fetch a new pot.

Jeanne Moreau is here for a preview of the BBC film The Clothes in the Wardrobe, in which she plays Lili, a catalyst in the lives of two South London families. Finding that the daughter of an old friend is to be rushed into marriage, she sets about rescuing her. Lili is committed to Life against suburban inertia, but mischievous and more than a little capricious. The scene with the tea bags could have come straight from the film.

Each day, after shooting, Jeanne Moreau reads the script from beginning to end, 'because it sheds a new light on what we did before'. There are a lot of laurels on which she is not resting. She has been an international name since the New Wave, when she was the sultry adulteress in Malle's Les Amants and the apex of a whimsical menage a trois in Truffaut's Jules et Jim. In 1965, she was on the cover of Time ('an actress of infinite complexity and conviction'). She had been a star in France for years.

Contrary to popular opinion, she was not always cast as a tart. The Fifties films were competent genre movies that the New Wave tended to despise: 'I worked with directors that Truffaut, when he was a critic, wrote devastating things about; but they taught me so much.' The young Malle cast her to type in a Barbara Stanwyck role for his first film, Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud, and says she was 'incredibly helpful'. She repays the compliment: 'Maybe, but I was not aware of that, because he taught me a lot. Film-making is an exchange.'

For a decade, she was the epitome of amoral Gallic eroticism. But her mother was English, the daughter of a Lancashire fisherman whom Moreau remembers with affection: 'His first name was Granville - imagine] What a name] He used to call me 'Chatterbox'. He was responsible for me wearing trousers - in 1936, when young girls didn't do that. He had a little fishing-boat called The Wagtail, and he would take me out to sea.' She has a younger sister in Brighton and relatives in the Isle of Man. 'I'm sure they're going to be shocked by Lili - 'so that's what she's up to]' '

Her parents divorced at the outbreak of war and she stayed in France. 'Two years earlier, and I'd have become an English actress.' Her father, a hotelier, was strict, mistrusting 'a woman with a will of her own'. He stopped her going to the cinema, so becoming an actress was a rebellion. 'I knew, very early, that I didn't want to be like the rest.' After four years at the Comedie Francaise, she joined the Theatre National Populaire - very populaire at the time - and played opposite Gerard Philipe. She stayed a season. 'I didn't feel like being trapped.'

She is, by all accounts, a professional. Truffaut, in a letter to Hitchcock, called her 'ideal to work with . . . willing to give a fast or slow performance, to be funny or sad, serious or zany . . . In case of disaster, she stands by the captain of the ship.' For her, the director counts more than the script.

'I never read the script of La Notte,' said Moreau. 'I never read the script with Bunuel, or Orson, or Francois: on Jules et Jim, I only looked at the script a few days before shooting.' She rejects many parts. 'There are some scripts that are lies. Like Basic Instinct. If that had been offered to me some years ago, I wouldn't do it.'

Lili is her second part for the BBC; she did Huis Clos in 1985, though it gave little scope for her 'English side', her sense of humour. She loves that, likes London, likes travel, likes going home to Paris, likes writing (which she does every day - 'anything, it's so good to put down your thoughts'). She wants to live 'day by day, and die in good health'. The only things she has no time for are politicians and organised religion. She breaks off to enthuse about Kevin Costner, whom she has just seen on television: 'I was fascinated - the way he spoke about his work, that sort of self-confidence in dealing with another director, which you wouldn't find in France.'

Her near-perfect English comes with French stresses and a delivery all her own, slow, relaxed, full of amused acceptance. Renoir said she had 'a rare gentleness'. She also has an enduring appetite for life which, tempered by her 'English' humour, suggests a good measure of wisdom.

'Screen Two: The Clothes in the Wardrobe' will be shown on BBC2 tonight, 10-11.20pm.

(Photographs omitted)