The Gulbenkian Theatre at the University of Kent at Canterbury was to stage the world-premiere of Cet Amour-Là, with the celebrated Jeanne Moreau doing Canterbury the amazing honour of making herself available for questions from the audience in person, albeit only afterwards by way of reward for her acolytes.
Although I was a little irked with the wilful French-ness of the film (lots and lots of 'stream-of-consciousness' talking in a 'churchy' voice with each and every lingering image), the subject was interesting, if not exactly novel:
A young and, of course, handsome admirer in a Parisian Left-Bank sort of way, of an old, celebrated female writer is smitten with everything the writer has ever written and, before implementing the de-rigueur existential suicide he has on his mind that is mandatory for any self-respecting, sensitive young man and born poet aspiring to immortality, decides to visit the writer to round off his budding life - a theme well known in Russian literature, too.
The film is essentially about the progression of the young man's ethereal love affair with the old lady's literature and the transformation of this relationship into mutual physical dependence across the tremendous age gap between them, a relationship that, of necessity, degenerates into a stifling, devoted one-room emotional imprisonment. Still, no matter, the young beau forgets to commit suicide, as was to be expected from the outset, and gets better and better at 2-finger-typing her dictation, as could be hoped for.
Equally predictably, it falls to him to nurse the old lady through to her death from too much sensitivity and French red wine that is good for anyone.
She dies, her writings live on, he lives on, his writings die - with the onset of maturity.
Put like this, the story sounds banal, but Moreau, of course, is an absolute marvel, and the taciturn young man and John Lennon look-alike, Gauloise hanging from the corner of his mouth throughout, is no more than a convenient foil against which to bring out the eccentric and capricious character of the old lady writer and to illustrate the process of creation involved in writing – at least, in a French sense and sensibility.
The discussion afterwards was the most interesting aspect of the evening, Moreau speaking excellent English in cigarette-smoke rolled French accent.
The audience was packed and thick with academics and cinéasts. Moreau's answers were so intriguing, so voluble, comprehensive and unassailable that the book and film gained in stature with every statement. Had the Q&A session gone on for longer, the film would have surpassed itself!
As a result, despite great eagerness of the uncommonly energised audience, only a few questions could be fielded. When some English academics weighed in with creepy praise of her acting (her acting is wonderful and is only degraded by English obsequiousness), it was clear to all that the event was drawing to a close.
The only critical voice came from a French Vietnamese lady academic who decried the music of the film as 'forgettable' (true if the truth be told), speaking in French to establish an exclusive, conspiratorial rapport with Moreau (which felt intellectually creepy), and was met, as quick as a flash, by the uncommonly English response 'All compliments accepted with grace' by Jeanne Moreau in growling voice, underlined with a mock curtsey. The Vietnamese lady withered away!
One more small question allowed elicited a complete chanson of an answer, and then the marvellous Moreau flounced off the stage, without warning. She had obviously suddenly decided she had done her stint. Various ushers ran around with oversize, funereal flower bouquets, and Moreau rolled her eyes up to heaven when one of them managed to press the flowers into her bosom, with the other ushers running on after her and out into the corridor. Very funny.
Funnier still, afterwards, Moreau thwarted all solicitous arrangements to make her leave the Gulbenkian's premises with suitable dignity through the front entrance - perhaps she feared further flower tributes en route, and the whole gaggle around her squeezed themselves out into the car park at the fire exit at the wrong end of the building.
Barely outside, the great Moreau stopped, stood and stared at the English sky, so immobilising everyone else behind her stuck at the narrowest point of the exit. She admired a plane red-white blinking its way across the night sky in urgent search of Gatwick airport. With childlike innocence she declared it to be a satellite, by way of instant poetic apotheosis. (She had already admitted to failing eye-sight, though this was part of the film!). The prosaic chaperone in charge, as I squeezed past, shrugged his shoulders to me in subservient exasperation:
'Well, if the great Moreau insists it is a satellite, then it is a satellite!’
Canterbury down below 'the academic hill' sparkled emphatically in the crystal October night as if to huddle around the orange wonder of the central Cathedral rising from its midst.
Content © R Reisenberger, 2001