“I would live in a city, without trees or wind.” — Anne Desbarèdes
Alain Robbe-Grillet had launched the nouveau roman in France, and Marguerite Düras became part of that movement with her 1958 Moderato cantabile—her literary rebirth, since her previous fiction was conventional. Britain’s Peter Brook, of all people, directed the film version from a screenplay by Düras and Gérard Jarlot. (Düras had already written the story and script for Alain Resnais’s film of forbidden love and relentless memory, Hiroshima, mon amour, 1959.) The star, Jeanne Moreau, who herself would play Düras in Josée Dayan’s 2001 Cet amour-là, was named best actress at Cannes for her beautiful performance as a bourgeois wife who falls in love with a former factory worker. Moreau, the principal female icon of the nouveau vague, has remained cinema’s greatest actress post-Garbo. The title of both book and film, Italian, refers to a fluent, lyrical style of music: literally, “moderate and singable”—as piano tutor Mlle Giraud puts it, “like a lullaby at bedtime.”
In the spirit of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and goodness knows how many other fictions, Moderato cantabile relates class to sexuality, and vice versa, folding each into the other. Anne Desbarèdes, a perfect bourgeois wife, maintains a soft, tidy, agreeable appearance, defers to her husband’s contemptuous authority, and keeps herself occupied with their young child, Pierre (“l’enfant,” who is given a name in the film), such as by leaving their grand mansion on Boulevard de la Mer and taking him into the working-class district for his piano lessons in Mlle Giraud’s apartment. It is in the Café de la Gironde below and across from the spinster’s place, where Mlle Giraud’s tutorial authority compensates for a hollow, fastidious existence, that Anne will meet Chauvin, defying society’s classist design, which would have kept these two safely apart forever.
Bourgeois aspiration and consequence: as the film’s opening credits roll, we hear two things. One is the lovely, mature playing of a Diabelli sonatina; the other is the sound of children playing outside. The latter indicates Pierre’s exclusion from a normal childhood; the former is what he compensatorily gets: musical technique, after who knows how many relentless hours, indeed years, of practice. By indirection this implies the theme of memory; for the stage at which Pierre is able to play the Diabelli piece “moderato cantabile” is some time ahead of when the film’s action is initially set, and the difference in time indicates that someone, perhaps Pierre himself, is “looking back.” He is haunted by the past, including the childhood of which he was deprived in order to fulfill an image of bourgeois accomplishment. Or might it be Mlle Giraud who is looking back, recalling the price that she has had to pay to achieve her musical expertise—the lost childhood and, afterwards, no marriage and the status that attaches to being married?
When the film proper opens, Pierre is at Mlle Giraud’s piano struggling through scales (a most unpromising pupil!), not to mention the Diabelli piece, to which he stubbornly fails to apply the requisite style and tempo, while Mlle Giraud stands over him with a corrective air and his mother, inscrutable, probably zoning out (as is her wont, we will learn), sits off toward the side, a composed, dutiful image of bourgeois correctness, which her ridiculously sculpted hairdo sums up. These shots of Mme Desbarèdes are inserts, as befit a character whose existence has thus far consisted of inserts in her husband’s life, her son’s, her servants’, her own consciousness. Now we find ourselves believing that what we heard at the outset might have been Anne’s memory, even if in her case the memory is a fantasy—someone else’s life being the only life that Anne could possibly mistake for her own. Another sound, though, disrupts the lesson: a woman’s ghastly cry, combining moan and scream, down below. All three—tutor, tutee, tutee’s mother—hang out a huge window once Mlle Giraud opens it. A flurry of people on bicycles head toward the out-of-view café, from which the mortal sound must have emanated; a police car arrives. Anne and Pierre are at ground level now, having exited the apartment building where Giraud lives and works. How can they not look into the café, which for Anne, after all, is a same-class extension of Giraud’s apartment? I used to put it another way: Anne, for whom passion is a repressed dream, must look in to make sure it isn’t she herself who has just been murdered.
It isn’t. The corpse on the floor is boldly bone-structured and dark; although in other roles Moreau can seem larger than life, as Anne she is a small, wispy blonde. The woman whom the corpse was so recently is Anne’s antithesis—perhaps a projection of Anne’s repressed sexual fantasy. As if to make the point additionally sore, the lover who has killed gets on top of the corpse and caresses it, as though he never wants to part from his beloved, as though he seeks to revive her through renewed passion; has Anne ever known such passion? At home, we find Anne and her husband, by way of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), sitting at opposite ends of a passionless dining room table that accentuates M. Desbarèdes’s coldness and condescension toward his wife. When Anne musters the boldness to suggest that their son may amount to something at the piano, her supercilious husband cuts her down with a single admonishing word: “Please . . . .” (It is as though he were saying, “Your son, madam, is incapable of talent.”) Moreau’s Anne looks incredibly small at table, like the child that her spouse treats her as, or as the possession he considers her; and Brook’s cutting back and forth between them at opposite ends of the table obliterates all sense of a loving connection between them. Anne hardly has a voice in her own home. But for all we know—for all she knows—she is as brilliant even as Marguerite Düras. Regrettably, Anne has been taught to feel otherwise about herself. Her brusque, paternalistic spouse represents the patriarchic culture that has steered Anne to her passive, submissive self-image.
To the invisible accompaniment of the Diabelli, played again as well as with the opening credits (and which continually crops up on the soundtrack throughout the film), mother and son, en route to a piano lesson or perhaps returning from one, cannot help but pause at the café; Anne is drawn by fascination with the spectacle she witnessed on the floor of the café the other day. Chauvin had noticed her then; each now notices the other. “I was just passing by,” Anne explains to the proprietor—as though she must “explain” herself. Can everyone see just how unfamiliar with passion—how starved for it—she is?
Anne adores Pierre. This is why Düras this time has given the boy a name. In the novel, his namelessness—part of a fabric of anonymous characters (including the narrator)—belongs to Düras in pursuit of a dreamy mysteriousness as well as the reduction of a child in the bourgeois scheme of things; but in the film “the child” would appear to reflect an absence of warm maternal love on Anne’s part, and since this is not the case he had to be given a name. It would be too queer for him not to have one, whereas his not having one makes perfect and pointed sense in the book. I have referred to Pierre’s stubbornness at his piano lessons; but he is not being rude so much as he is contesting the image into which he is being shoehorned in light of his empathy for his mother, on whom patriarchy has imposed a similar fate. He is expressing his young desire not to become his father. When Anne tells her son, “Sometimes I think I invented you, that you are not real,” she is giving back to him his bias in her favor. She is excluding Pierre from the “reality” of both sex and patriarchic prerogatives, claiming him as her son, not her husband’s. It is a heartrending statement inasmuch as Anne rarely asserts herself or declares her own importance, let alone superiority vis-à-vis her spouse, in any venue or regard. But something else attracts us to Anne’s relationship with her son. Given the dissatisfaction that her marriage generates for her, we are likely to find it nothing short of heroic that she refrains from subjecting Pierre to exaggerated, compensatory maternal attentions. She is no Mildred Pierce (Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz, 1945); she does not make herself too much of a mother to relieve the personal agony of her feeling too little a wife. To do so would objectify Pierre in yet another way, and she will not add to her husband’s objectification of him (and of her). Anne is one victim who will not victimize—not her Pierre; not her soul-mate. On the other hand, Pierre cannot always feel secure with his mother, who at least as often occupies a dream space of her own as a social space with him (or others). At one point, after telling her something, he feels compelled to ask, “Did you hear me?” We realize what an exquisite balancing act that Anne is doing her best to maintain when she gives Pierre an immediate account of what he has just told her.
Wet, wintry scenes of snow, bedecked with bare trees, project Anne’s emotional barrenness—and also her feeling of sexual barrenness, which lies behind her remark that she thinks somehow she “invented” Pierre. It is in hopes of overturning such feelings that Anne pursues her relationship with Chauvin. The crux of the relationship is that Chauvin becomes her source of information about the murdered woman and the murderer, the woman’s lover. He has promised to find out as much as he can. (We see him do this without success.) Is he deceiving Anne, even betraying her, by spinning his tales when he cannot possibly know what lies behind the murder scene? No. Anne’s desire to know is merely the pretext for connecting with Chauvin on the sly; his “invention” of the story is fine with Anne, who tells him at one point, “Tell me more of what happened, even if you are not quite certain, even if you have to make it up.” She is asking for a bedtime story—but one about grown-up things: love; murder. If her husband treats her as though he is her cold, disapproving parent, Chauvin becomes Anne’s “good parent,” the one who treats her warmly and dreamily, the one capable of satisfying her curiosity and sparking her imagination. Unfortunately, whereas Anne is sensitive with her son, she is merely self-sensitive with Chauvin, failing to take into account how her ignoring the class divide between them will ultimately participate in his destruction.
Anne’s inquisitiveness bordering on childlike wonder moderates the pathos of her desire for a touch of adult warmth in her life, and Chauvin responds with exquisite tact. (Not once do we feel that he is “leading her on” and exploiting her.) Chauvin spins a tale of how the anonymous couple came to be, beginning, “It started between them like any other love story.” When Chauvin is finished, Anne is still drawn to the ultimate point of passion. She asks, “Why at the end did he kill her?” Chauvin’s tact maintains its grip: “I think that she asked him to kill her. He could not do otherwise.” This extracts the bitter from the bittersweet. This makes the couple a couple in all things—loving accomplices to the end. Brook follows Chauvin’s extraordinary surmise with a long-held shot of Anne. We can make of this what we will, for the shot is ambiguous. Has Chauvin’s surmise stopped time for Anne? Is Anne’s sustained impassivity a projection of Chauvin’s desire for her receptivity? Is Anne again zoning out, retreating into a dream where she imagines herself occupying the anonymous identity of the murdered woman? This shot recalls the famous one of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933); its ambiguity holds us in its grip.
The possibility that Anne may be imagining herself into Chauvin’s dreamy account of the crime suggests an extension of this possibility. Chauvin is among the crowd outside the Café de la Gironde looking in as the police, with the killer in tow, stage a re-enactment of the crime. Is Chauvin imagining himself the killer? (The same actor, wonderful Jean-Paul Belmondo, had already played Michel, the cop killer, in Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle, 1959.) In the space where his and Anne’s imaginations conjoin, are the two of them also “a couple”? Having dreamt together an impossible version of the crime, are they imagining themselves into each other’s spirituality and sensitivities? One notes that Chauvin is even more of a “wanderer” than Anne is. He is unaccompanied by a son—except for Anne’s, who, being in some sense Anne’s “invention,” is as much Chauvin’s son as the son of his biological father, who has (as far as we can see) nothing ever to do with the boy. Who knows? Perhaps Pierre is Anne’s son from some other relationship—an earlier marriage; an adulterous affair.
The action of the film lasts seven days and seven nights—a highly charged week that sparks enough suspicion on the part of M. Desbarèdes that he arranges for his wife to be driven by car for Pierre’s appointments with Mlle Giraud. (We never learn the first name of either Anne’s husband or Chauvin.) Anne’s commitment to Pierre’s piano lessons has been decided for her. This is something that the boy is supposed to learn, although the cruel authority that Mlle Giraud wields, as though she is determined to crush the boy, chafes the boy, precipitating his mother’s “zoning out.” Why then does Anne herself not contest the piano lessons? Divided, she simply lacks the radical perspective to contest the storm of authority arrayed against herself and her son. Yes, this is not right; yes, Pierre must learn to obey Mlle Giraud. On their last night together, Anne tells Chauvin at the café, “I think I’m in love with you, but I’m never sure of anything.” And she never is, in large measure because she has been trained to discount her own feelings and to obey authority, as Pierre now is being asked to do.
Pierre and Chauvin both in turn confront Anne to contest her bourgeois example. In the forest after Pierre’s piano lesson, Pierre asks his mother about the stags that are being rounded up. What will happen to them? Anne spins a fairy tale, telling Pierre that they will be set free in other forests, in Germany. “That’s a lie!” Pierre explodes. “They will be killed!” Anne lamely attempts to reiterate her soothing version of reality and ends up on the ground under a tree as Pierre goes off on his own. One of the most moving passages of the film follows. Pierre re-enters the frame, having found a way to apologize to his mother for his rudeness without sacrificing his sense of righteousness (to which, of course, he is entitled): he covers and crowns her in forest brush. At their last meeting, Chauvin tells Anne that he is leaving the next morning because of her: “We never could have loved each other.” So powerless in so many venues, it hadn’t sufficiently occurred to Anne—it certainly must have occurred to her to some degree—that in relation to Chauvin she was the one, by dint of class, who wielded power. To translate his declaration, what Chauvin means is this: “We never could have loved each other in reality, in time, despite the fact that we may have loved each other.” Like Pierre earlier, Chauvin explodes: “I wish you were dead!” He, too, leaves the frame—but, in his case, never to re-enter it. Anne falls to the floor of the darkened café, letting out a series of piercing animal moans: an artistic aural match for the visible human animal deaths in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955) and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958). When her husband arrives to collect Anne and take her home, we wonder, perhaps for the first time, whether he is used to performing this service, bearing this cross as part of a bourgeois martyr-complex, needing at all costs to maintain the fiction—this is a film about maintaining fictions—that his marriage is a “perfect” one.
Throughout the film, Anne “zones out.” Eventually, images become correlative to these psychological events. Usually they involve a tracking shot in darkness surveying the Desbarèdes mansion and forested grounds through the bars of their enclosing fence: the illusion of freedom—the tracking camera—and the reality of confinement.
I do not care for Brook (although I would love to see one day The Beggar’s Opera, 1953, starring Laurence Olivier), but I moderately (and singably) enjoy this one film of his. And Moreau is out-of-this-world magnificent and thrillingly complex. There is also the moody, melancholy black-and-white cinematography of Armand Thirard, whose work we associate with Julien Duvivier and Henri-Georges Clouzot.
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