Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest French actors and a luminary of the French New Wave, died Monday. Her best work was for François Truffaut and Louis Malle, but she was also a staple in Orson Welles’s late masterworks. Moreau often played dissatisfied women whose passions had no outlet in life, surrounded by men who didn’t know how to love them. I’ve selected three of her best films, but there are many others worth finding: The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, The Lovers, The Bride Wore Black, Bay of Angels, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Train, Querelle. . .
Jules and Jim (1962)
Jules and Jim is Jeanne Moreau’s best performance and François Truffaut’s best film. She plays the tempestuous center of a ménage à trois. The story of her relationship with the titular men is also a story of France in the early Twentieth Century and its rough entrance into modernity. Few films convey such an utter sense of delight, of wonder, of cinematic discovery. Stream it on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon and iTunes. Criterion also has an excellent Blu-ray/DVD set.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
This tense crime thriller was Louis Malle’s first feature (he had already won the top prize at Cannes for a documentary co-directed with Jacques Cousteau) and the film that made Moreau a star. She plays the lover of a man who decides to murder her husband (and his boss). After doing the deed, he becomes trapped in an elevator, while she searches for the man she fears has abandoned her. Miles Davis’s classic score perfectly supports Moreau as she walks down dark Paris streets. Stream it on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon and iTunes. Criterion has a very nice Blu-ray/DVD as well.
La Notte (1961)
I’m fascinated by films in which relationships crumble in a short period of time. They’re emotional horror stories, things to watch and afterward remind yourself that everything is fine in real life. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, Moreau plays the wife of a novelist (Marcello Mastroianni). While at a party, all of their simmering resentments come flooding to the surface as he takes an interest in Antonioni regular Monica Vitti. Though not as well-known as its predecessor, L’avventura, or the films that followed (L’eclisse and Red Desert), it has aged a bit better—it explores Antonioni’s favorite theme, alienation, in more subtle ways than those (still great) films. Stream on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon and iTunes. Criterion has a great Blu-ray/DVD as well.
Sam Shepard died Thursday of last week, although his death was not announced until Monday. Shepard was one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his generation, whose works explored the iconography of the American West in startling ways. He won the Pulitzer in 1978 for The Buried Child, and was also known for True West (1980) and Fool for Love (1983). But Shepard was also known as an actor, both on screen and on stage. I’ve highlighted a small number of his best films, two of which he starred in and one he wrote.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Shepard’s first major role was as the unnamed farmer in Terrence Malick’s sophomore feature. Richard Gere (young and beautiful) plays Bill, a Chicago steelworker. After an argument leads to the death of a foreman, he runs away to Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and her young sister Linda (Linda Manz, whose moving narration provides the template for all of Malick’s subsequent films). Once they’re situated on a farm, Bill tries to convince Abby to marry the farmer (Shepard), who has been diagnosed with some unstated by fatal condition.
It’s the plot of a fairly generic crime film, but Malick’s eye finds beauty in every detail. Fields of wheat have never looked as lustrous, nor have swarms of locusts ever looked as fierce. Even for those who find Malick’s latter-day films too unfocused, Days of Heaven is the great uniter. Stream on FilmStruck (where you can also find an interview with Shepard about the film), rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play. Criterion has a fine Blu-ray/DVD.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Philip Kaufman’s epic adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book is the best film on the space race, and one of the best aviation films, period. It boasts an excellent ensemble cast (Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, just to name a small sample), but the film’s heart is with Shepard, who plays test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager is the best of the bunch, but he’s passed over for mostly cosmetic reasons when the Mercury astronauts are selected (he doesn’t have a college degree). Shepard looks as if he’s barely able to keep his disappointment in check. He sometimes stands out opposite the other actors—he comes off as far more naturalistic than the other (very good) actors. They’re acting in a film, but it’s as if he’s Yeager in real life. Shepard was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Shepard co-wrote Wim Wenders’s film with L. M. Kit Carson, but it fits in perfectly with his plays in the way it uses and deconstructs the traditions of the Western. The great Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis Henderson, a drifter walking through the Texas desert. He once had a family, a missing wife (Nastassja Kinski) and a young son (Hunter Carson). The son has been taken in by his brother (Dean Stockwell). Once Travis is found, they try to reunite him with his son, but he’s singularly focused on finding his wife, who left long ago. Wenders, a German, treats Texas if it’s some kind of alien world, aided by the beautiful use of light from cinematographer Robby Muller and Ry Cooder’s aching score. The film won the top prize at the Cannes film festival. Stream on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon and iTunes. And of course, Criterion has an excellent Blu-ray/DVD.