- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Entrusted with the cinematic dimension of the Kennedy Center’s four-month cultural bash, “The Festival of France,” the American Film Institute seems to have settled for new wave nostalgia.

The movie programs, which begin today at the new AFI Silver Theatre and Wednesday at the institute’s erstwhile showcase, the National Theater at Kennedy Center, open with a retrospective devoted to actress Jeanne Moreau. Later, they follow up with a retrospective devoted to director Alain Resnais, introduce a handful of new features and, finally, revive a trio of idiosyncratic pictures from the 1960s: Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard, Balthazar,” Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” and Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.”

These selections will carry the French film festival as far as Thursday, March 4, considerably short of the termination date for “Festival of France” itself. It remains to be seen if subsequent weeks can accommodate a somewhat broader and deeper perspective of French movie history, reaching back earlier than 1957 or so. There’s quite a bit of ground to be surveyed — from Georges Melies, Max Linder and Louis Feuillade through Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and Rene Clement, to cite just a few names at random.

Indeed, Miss Moreau, 75, and Mr. Resnais, 82, both professionally predate French cinema’s new wave, which had its coming-out party at the Cannes Film Festival of 1959. Both “The 400 Blows” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” the debut features of Francois Truffaut and Mr. Resnais, respectively, made splashes at Cannes and went on to enjoy international success.

Miss Moreau, considered very precocious as a stage actress, was invited to perform with the Comedie-Francaise before graduating from the national acting conservatory. She played opposite Gerard Philippe in “Le Cid” and had a personal triumph as Eliza in “Pygmalion” and Maggie in the Paris theatrical debut of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” years before her first provocative movie roles.

Miss Moreau first appeared on the screen in 1949, playing a young hussy in “Le Dernier Amour.” She became identified with ominous and unscrupulous romantic circumstances, initially under the direction of the late Louis Malle in “Elevator to the Scaffold” and “The Lovers,” both released in France in 1958 and both included in the AFI’s two-week retrospective, “Jeanne Moreau: Speaking the Universal Language.”

Even in the best mercurial roles of her career, as the bohemian troublemaker of Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and as a platinum-tressed compulsive gambler in Jacques Demy’s “Bay of Angels,” Miss Moreau tended to be a smoldering and slippery proposition. During the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s, she emerged as the favorite art-house embodiment of an elusive woman of the world: the one most likely to drive men batty trying to figure out how to appease or outlast unfathomable discontents and longings.

One of the amusing aspects of the Moreau mystique is that she isn’t as French as one might suppose: Her mother was a chorine from Lancashire who married a Parisian bartender. When they split up in 1939, the 11-year-old Jeanne remained with her father.

The AFI Theater survey includes a couple of recent titles that are definitely intriguing: “Cet Amour-la,” in which she portrays writer and occasional filmmaker Marguerite Duras; and a remake of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles,” with Miss Moreau as the spinster aunt. The latter was mounted for French television only last year.

The late film historian David Shipman recalled the ardor of Time magazine in 1965, while Moreau fever was still surging: “There is no actress in Hollywood who can match the depth and breadth of her art. There is no personality … so able to withstand the long, lingering look of the movie camera. … She is an actress of infinite complexity and conviction.”

Mr. Shipman could look back in tranquility and conclude, “Maybe, in the end, she wasn’t that remarkable, but there had been a dearth of interesting women on the screen. You knew you were in the presence of no common or garden actress.”

The Moreau filmography now exceeds a hundred titles, so the current AFI sampling of 11 is a mere fraction of the workload shouldered over her 50 years in movies. A more comprehensive sampling of the Moreau inventory would make the point more effectively, but the allure should endure in mint condition in such festival revivals as “Jules and Jim,” “The Lovers,” “Elevator to the Scaffold” and “Bay of Angels.”

EVENT: “Jeanne Moreau: Speaking the Universal Language,” opening program of French movie series to accompany “The Festival of France” celebration at Kennedy Center

WHERE: The American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, starting today; the AFI’s National Theater at Kennedy Center starting Wednesday

WHEN: Daily through Thursday, March 4.

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: At the Kennedy Center, 202/785-4600; at the Silver Theatre, 301/495-6700

CALENDAR OF SHOWINGS: Today through Thursday: “Jules and Jim,” only at the Silver.

Wednesday (Jan. 28): “Cet Amour-la” and “Les Parents Terribles,” at the Kennedy Center.

Thursday (Jan. 29): “The Lovers” and “Viva Maria!,” Kennedy Center.

Friday (Jan. 30): “Elevator to the Scaffold” and “Eva,” Silver; “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “Les Parents Terribles,” Kennedy Center.

Saturday (Jan. 31): “Eva,” “Elevator to the Scaffold,” “Mademoiselle” and “Les Parents Terribles,” Silver; “The Lovers,” “Viva Maria!,” “Bay of Angels” and “The Bride Word Black,” Kennedy Center.

Sunday (Feb. 1): “Mademoiselle,” “Viva Maria!” and “The Lovers,” Silver; “Bay of Angels,” “Cet Amour-la,” “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “The Bride Wore Black,” Kennedy Center.

Monday (Feb. 2): “The Lovers” and “The Bride Wore Black,” Silver; “Bay of Angels” and “Diary of a Chambermaid,” Kennedy Center.

Tuesday (Feb. 3): “Bay of Angels,” Silver; “Mademoiselle” and “Elevator to the Scaffold,” Kennedy Center.

Wednesday (Feb. 4): “Elevator to the Scaffold” and “Eva,” Kennedy Center.

Thursday (Feb. 5): “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “The Bride Wore Black,” Silver; “Mademoiselle” and “Eva,” Kennedy Center.

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