Jeanne Moreau's “Lumiere” is a movie that sneaks up on us, that insinuates itself after we're beginning to have our doubts. It begins with too many fancy visual touches -- with a long, long tracking shot that looks in too many windows, for example -- and we're afraid that Miss Moreau is trying too hard in her directorial debut. But then, as the strands of her story become clear and we begin to know the characters, the movie grows into a simple and strong emotional statement.
It's about a week or so in the lives of four actresses, and the men in their lives. It takes place in a world that will look artificial and affected to a lot of people but it's a real world, all right: the world of film and theater, of heightened emotions and insecurity and loneliness pretending to be promiscuity.
All four of the actresses are at critical moments in their romantic lives; Miss Moreau's character, for example, is breaking up with a longtime lover, becoming fascinated with a fatuous young German writer, and depending for human contact on an old friendship with a scientist she met by accident. The other actresses are as busy, moving distractedly from quarrels to despair to sudden loves and liaisons.
What the women have in common is their friendship, and even that doesn't go very deeply except in the case of Sarah (Moreau) and Laura (Lucia Bose), who have known each other for so long that trust can be depended on. The reason they understand each other so deeply, we sense, is that they've been through so many of the same things -- and, especially, through all the many ways men have used them, or attempted to. “Lumiere” isn't a feminist film, but a woman's film: That's to say it doesn't take a position on the treatment of its women so much as simply reveal the nature of their lives.
At first, as I've suggested, we're not even quite sure the movie's going to do that. Miss Moreau treats her story obliquely, and the film's structure is gracefully complicated. It's only after we understand her relationship with Gregoire (Francois Simon) that we have the key.
He's a man somewhere in his 60s, direct and calm, whose scientific work, involves disease-carrying organisms. He has nothing in common with her world or her other friends. When he's invited to an awards ceremony for her, indeed, he has to rent not only cufflinks but even shoes. She loves him, though, and cares about him. She invites him to lunch and confides that she will let him in on a secret: He's so absorbed in greater matters most of the time that she doesn't believe he's ever quite bothered to distinguish between a lamb chop and a veal cutlet.
Gregoire will learn during the film that he's dying of an incurable disease. How he reacts to this knowledge -- and bow Miss Moreau does -- could have been the stuff of soap opera. Instead, it illuminates the film. It provides a context for all the show business superficiality, all the easy clichés and lies, all the ego trips. It provides an emotional bottom line, and it's remarkable how Jeanne Moreau (who wrote as well as directed) was able to find her way so surely to the film's final revelations. This could have been another showbiz tearjerker. Instead, she's taken the life she knows and used it as a backdrop for larger things she wants to say. She's been criticized in some quarters for making a narcissistic movie: for filming in her own home in the south of France, for too dramatically costuming herself (In red, most of the time), for giving her character an apparently limitless supply of handsome lovers.
That's missing the point. The movie is precisely about just the kind of woman she plays -- a famous international beauty of a certain age and a famous style, who during a week of the usual ennui and hypocrisy suddenly discovers what really matters to her. “Lumiere” is French for “light." What the director says before "camera" and "action." That's not quite what it means here: I think Jeanne Moreau sees it as a dawning.