by Phyllis Shearer
Cut, no. 16, 1977, p. 5
LUMIÈRE glitters but does not illuminate its subject, women actresses. Writer-director-star of the film, Jeanne Moreau, has given us a lush, pretty movie that is intellectually out of focus. We see privileged women languishing on the pedestal of success as the film pretends to explore the intersection of their roles as actresses and as women. But LUMIÈRE just flavors the ideas it provokes with a touch of this and a dab of that, never raising any essential interpretation of its own subject.
There is little humor or anguish in LUMIÈRE that might explain the characters it pretends to study. In the role she herself plays, Moreau only touches slightly on a certain ennui felt in being at the top of one's profession. In a succession of vignettes about four movie actresses, the film simply centers around how they feel about who they are as women — especially privileged women.
At the film's opening they meet at Moreau's summer home for a respite from their work. There they share confessional conversations as they drink wine and eat elegant food in a hilltop house overlooking a lake. They imply that only they, as actresses, can appreciate their special secrets. All their discussions revolve around men they have known — fathers, first lovers, husbands, ex-husbands, and current lovers. Gradually it becomes apparent that men, over other influences, define them. The film never suggests that these women might have achieved their success without men. Moreau isn't concerned with how skilled, accomplished actresses function in their professional and private lives, but with how it feels to be a part of an exclusive group.
We keep wanting to see another dimension of the women. Moreau establishes the framework without furnishing the detail. She does not show us whole people at all but merely subdivides and classifies her characters into types, especially into categories that favor the sensuous part of a woman. Two of the actresses are mothers (Francine Racette and Lucia Bose) but we never know what demands their families make on them. Another actress (Caroline Cartier) spends most of the movie bickering with a jealous boyfriend. The fourth, played by Jeanne Moreau, is everybody's darling, the clichéd "toast of Paris" — the bonne vivante of the movie world. These "European" stereotypes show us people who are sought-after women first and actresses second.
When famous actress takes on the project of directing a film about actresses' lives, she could demystify the glamorous aspect of what most of us know in truth to be hard work. Furthermore, if, as Moreau maintains, women talk to women better than to men, why isn't LUMIÈRE talking directly and honestly to women instead of hiding behind fluff and opulence? Actresses and women directors (when they finally get the chance through their own projects) need to force the movie industry to free their image from the stereotypical modes of the past. Although actresses today consistently bemoan the parts offered them, LUMIÈRE provides nothing new. Shirley MacLaine, for one, has discussed this problem in terms of her own career.
"The only good parts I ever got were hookers … Naturally, I took them because I wanted to be successful. That's why I'm an expert in victims. They were the best parts. And when I woke up — sociologically, politically, and creatively — I could no longer take those parts and look in the mirror."(1)
Actresses have to make compromises in their choice of roles, but Moreau does not either raise this issue within her film or do much as a director to change it. Ellen Burstyn abhors this aspect of movie making and what it does to audiences.
"We've seen enough of women as whores, boring wives, insipid, frightened little Jane Austen characters, or the instruments of destruction … I don't think actresses should be unaware of what they're contributing to. People get their ideas about life from the movies. I got my idea of life from the movies more than I did from life. What are we offering to girls? Whores, boring mothers… If women in films are willing to do something about it — instead of sitting back and saying, 'they're writing songs of love, but not for me,' a great deal can be accomplished."(2)
Moreau is also not honest in LUMIÈRE about the competition actresses must engage in to get the occasional good part. In her film the women exhibit a strong camaraderie and understanding for each other. How did it get that way? How do these women as a group, or individually, deal with the abuses, the disappointments, and the scarcity of good roles the industry offers them? How could these protagonists arrive at such a state of union and harmony?
LUMIÈRE depicts a little-girl world with women who act baffled by the complexities that surround them. Moreau does not analyze the real complexities — she ignores them. Innocence prevails. The women stay young and beautiful, albeit with a limited consciousness, forever. In keeping with this tone, Moreau avoids close ups of Lucia Bose, who portrays an over-forty actress who is pregnant and worried as she tries to understand her fading beauty, her wandering husband and her two growing children. These very real and recognizable circumstances are ones many women experience but they are uncomfortable to Moreau's camera. In distant long shorts, Bose's facial details are lost and buried against the background. We may not look too closely at this woman's pain, for an aging face and perhaps some wrinkles would fill the frame.
Jeanne Moreau seems to keep playing her Catherine in JULES AND JIM — a little older and more seasoned, but sadly no wiser. In Truffaut's hands the complex Catherine was always an enigma whose childish, egocentric will prevailed because of her selfishness. Yet feminist filmmakers cannot "inherit" and easily integrate into their work those images of women produced by classic cinema, even when those images are supposedly positive. Here those images and LUMIÈRE itself reconstruct the typical social relation of male directors to actresses. In LUMIÈRE Moreau gives herself a more generous role to play than Catherine but maintains her position of power, for as director and writer she has created the other roles to suit her narcissism. All the women in the film are alter egos of herself.
The men's roles are as vapid as the women's. Moreau has a friendship with a scientist (François Simon) who loves her. She seeks his scholarly perseverance in trying to cure a disease never mentioned, but he never comes to function as a whole person. In the plot he is merely an elegant addendum, some cultivated touch to raise Moreau's movie star's self-esteem. Keith Carradine, the only U.S. actor in the film, seems to represent American decadence, in contrast to the Parisian variety, as he confidently tries to seduce one of the actresses in clumsy French with clumsy gestures. These facile, one-dimensional portraits are either offensive or a total bore, or both.
The many mirrors in LUMIÈRE reflect more than glossy surfaces, but the visual images stay superficial and one-sided. There is a positive surfeit of beds. So much centers around the bedroom. Moreau receives and makes phone calls to her lovers from her king-size bed. Meaningful confessional conversations between women occur as they sit on beds. The young bickering couple, he stewing with jealous accusations, she tight-lipped and incensed, argue, guess where? What is Moreau saying with all these beds and bedrooms? Like hiding places existing by themselves, they seem intended as a respite but also as some curious lifeline to the movie's message about women. Again and again, Moreau reinforces the sensual side of a woman's nature by having half of her hidden under the covers. Is a woman more womanly, more inviting as a person, more appealing couched cozily in a bed? Is that her best physical attitude? If so, it was better done in 1938 with DINNER AT EIGHT, which did not take itself nearly as seriously as LUMIÈRE does. When Jean Harlow, propped up in bed, played coy, we knew it was an act. She oozed ambition from behind that coy facade and from beneath those silk sheets. Snarling at her maid in one breath, cooing at her oafish husband and trying to get what she wanted in the next. And then, pretending sophistication on the telephone while speaking with a sought-after hostess, she revealed her aggression and ambition. Harlow's bedroom perfectly framed her strategy for upward social mobility. Moreau's bedrooms are a pretense, a fraud, aimed only at sensuality in a vacuum.
Finally, the movie disappoints us precisely in this regard — about what it means to be an actress. We do get an occasional glimpse of Moreau's character on the movie set, at which time LUMIÈRE is about a movie within a movie. The cameras, the technicians, the complicated lighting equipment, the large crew all assemble for us to see. But as with the opening sequences at the summer home, these sequences do not show the bustle and activity of a movie set but have a deadness of composition and design. We do not see Moreau's character working at her craft, but rather in the last scene of the film, she sits carefully poised before a camera for a screen test.
This is the real work situation — the relationship between film actresses as workers among other workers — which Moreau could have explored and did not. However, the way in which she chose not to do this is instructive for feminist filmmaking. Instead of exploring how people work together when they make films, she focused in on the individual sensitive woman. That emphasis on the subjective and personal to the exclusion of everything else serves to reinforce the vulgar notion of what belongs to a woman's world and to a woman's art.
Recently informed of the death of her friend, the scientist (a suicide when he discovered that he was dying), Moreau collapses into tears, submitting to her grief. Apologizing to the camera crew and lighting technicians, she attempts to regain composure for the test. The scene ends and goes to black, ending the movie. Are these tears of recognition for not caring more for her friend? Are they part of knowing she has been thoughtless? Does this moment stun Moreau into reality — one she cannot act out? If the camera continued running would it capture a true or manipulated grief. Or is this sequence portraying "the show must go on" brand of reality? When I got to that point in LUMIÈRE, I realized that I was making up my own scenario.
Unfortunately, the film's ending was for me its beginning. That was when it started saying something complex about the life of an actress. But too little, too late. Freeze frame, cut, go to credits.
1. Lee Israel, "Saving An Endangered Species," Ms., No. 8 (February, 1975) p. 55.
2. p. 56.