In 1975, when French writer Marguerite Duras attended a university screening of "India Song," one of 19 daunting experimental films she directed, a student, Yann Andréa Lemée, sat through it to ask for her autograph and permission to write to her. For the next five years he wrote Duras daily, sometimes as many as five times.
In 1980 Duras invited him to visit her at her apartment in the coastal resort of Trouville, France. The two clicked instantly but soon tempestuously; nevertheless, Lemée would become the writer's last great love and remain with her to the end, when she died March 3, 1996, at age 81.
Lemée's novel inspired by their relationship has been made into an incisive film, Josée Dayan's "Cet Amour-là," which affords Duras' friend, Jeanne Moreau, yet another great role. At 75, and after 55 years on screen, Moreau's ravaged beauty and husky voice make her just the right age to play Duras. She also possesses just the right impassioned temperament.
Moreau brings an inescapable star charisma to Duras, which makes her romance with the young Yann Andréa (Aymeric Demarigny) persuasive. There's more to the casting, though: She and Duras would appear to have so much in common that the film seems to reveal as much about Moreau as Duras. Moreau starred in two films based on Duras novels: the memorable "Moderato Cantabile" (1960), directed by Peter Brook, and the dreadful "The Sailor From Gibraltar" (1967), directed by Tony Richardson.
Like the Duras she portrays with an easy authority and an effortless command of nuance, Moreau is a strong, courageous, daring yet vulnerable woman, blessed with a lively sense of humor and endless curiosity and concern for the world in which she lives. Moreau doesn't suffer fools gladly and knows well her own worth, but it's hard to imagine her being so insecure as to indulge in the cruel streak her Duras possesses.
Yet Moreau makes Duras understandable, her demeaning jests at Yann Andréa a reflection of her fears about being with a much younger man. As an artist herself she fully illuminates Duras' struggle to sustain a career and to meet the demanding standards she sets for herself.
Once Duras accepts the pleasant-looking Yann Andréa as a stenographer and then seduces him, she takes a step back, wondering what she has gotten into. She speculates on his motives; she worries about becoming dependent and then losing him. These are the natural concerns of an intelligent and complex older woman, who also has a high opinion of her own talent but often feels a failure.
Yann Andréa proves, however, to be the right man at the right time. Duras had become reclusive, was finding it difficult to write — and seemed in real danger of drowning in drink. Yann Andréa had to show he could stand up to the insults she hurled as a form of self-protection, that he loved her as much as her writing and that he was no wimp, capable of defending himself. He proved an inspiration for Duras, whose subsequent work included her novelized "Yann Andréa Steiner, a Memoir" and "The Lover," highly popular as a 1984 novel and a 1992 film, and he stuck by her through a difficult drying out at a sanitarium.
In his unprepossessing yet resilient way, Demarigny's Yann Andréa becomes an ideal match for Moreau's mercurial Duras, and under Dayan's confident, unobtrusive direction, the actors play off each other to perfection.
"Cet Amour-là" is a crisp, elegantly resonant film, but the highly critical and combative Duras might well have disapproved. Duras said in a 1990 interview that "I write about love, but not about tenderness. I don't like tender people. I am myself very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire." That Dayan sees no such mutual exclusivity is precisely what makes "Cet Amour-là," which translates as "That Love (There)," so alive and affecting.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes
Jeanne Moreau ... Marguerite Duras
Aymeric Demarigny ... Yann Andréa
Tanya Lopert Moreau ... The ambassador's wife
A New Yorker Films release. Writer-director Josée Dayan. Dialogue in collaboration with Yann Andréa Lemée, Maren Sell, Gilles Taurand. Producer Alain Sarde. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier. Editor Anne Boissel. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Costumes Mimi Lempika. Art director Sylvie Fennec. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 474-6869.