Although French movie actress Jeanne Moreau has directed only two films -- the delirious vanity production about the private lives of actresses, "Lumiere," in 1976, and the ridiculous romantic-nostalgic idyll "L'Adolescente," made in 1979 -- the reaction from many has been overwhelmingly positive.
But it's difficult to believe Moreau would have made any impact as an actress if she had taken the same rapturously oblivious approach to characterization that reduces her directing credits to drivel.
"L'Adolescente" commands bemused attention mainly as an irresistible sitting duck. Even the title, a misnomer, testifies to the inability of Moreau and her screenwriting collaborator, Henriette Jelinek, to keep a familiar theme or a single character in even fleeting focus.
Ostensibly, another summer idyll seen through the eyes of another awakening faun, "L'Adolescente" purports to be about a 12-year-old Parisian, Marie (pretty, inexpressive Laetitia Chauveau), who spends a vacation with her parents in the rural village where her beloved paternal grandmother (Simone Signoret, wasted as a Clean Old Peasant Matriarch) vegetates.
In fact, the movie reveals an extremely limited attention span. It imparts little insight to female adolescence and never betrays a compelling interest in Marie or any other character.
There are perhaps two moments with pleasing flashes of emotional accuracy and humor -- Marie's unhappy groan upon being informed by her grandmother that she'll only have to put up with menstrual cycles until she's 50 or so, and Marie's murmuring of romantic endearments while lying awake in bed. To the extent that the filmmakers can concentrate their dithery attentions, they dwell on a grotesque, implausible triangle that obliges daughter to resent mother as a romantic rival.
Marie gets a crush on a pleasant, curiously misplaced young doctor, Alexandre (Francis Huster), identified as a Jew in order to squeeze extra arbitrary poignance out of the setting, the summer of 1939. Marie's mother, Eva, a very weird carnal number -- stolid and remote yet overheated, too -- rebounds into the clandestine embrace of Dr. Alex after a baffling spat with husband Jean, a bedroom-eyed butcher played by Jacques Weber.
Somehow, mom is turned off when dad gives her a playful grab. What throws you at this juncture is Moreau's preliminary insistence on making a spectacle of Marie's parents as smoldering, lust-hungry mates who can scarcely wait to try out kinky wrinkles on each other as soon as the camera averts its glance.
Indeed, I can't recall a more lewd, creepier image of motherhood than the uncommunicative but evidently insatiable Eva, played by the intensely alienating Edith Clever, whose peculiar, ponderous mannerisms suggest a refugee from a vampire melodrama.
Anyway, the source of the marital rift is baffling. While dad conveniently departs to nurse his grudge in a neighboring outpost, mom makes hay with the overwhelmed doc, whose practice is so hilariously nonexistent he seems to have nothing to do except to be chastely attentive to the little girl from Paris and passionately attentive to her mom.
Eventually, the amorous doctor gets one professional call, but by the time he arrives, the patient has expired and the only service required is the signing of a death certificate.
It amuses the heartless filmmakers to treat Dr. Alex as a pathetic victim of love. Carrying the torch for the mysteriously devastating Eva, he goes berserk at a local hoedown and tries to claim her after she's reconciled with her husband, provoking a funny sort of punchout-at-the-gypsy-encampment scene in quite the wrong circumstances.
The ghastly nature of this erotic conflict doesn't disturb Moreau's condescending trance. She starts off patronizing the characters to tatters and never alters the approach. Entering the country setting in the Aveyron region, Moreau lines up the actors for smiley poses straight at the camera and informs us, as voice-over narrator, what's going to be colorful and adorable about these beaming make-believe rustics. Is it any wonder that an actress of Signoret's magnitude is too hemmed in to act when her character is introduced in these terms: "As usual, grandmama was waiting; severe but gentle grandmama, wise and watchful grandmama."
Like almost every stinker, "L'Adolescente" is thoughtful enough to write its own epitaph. The patient the doctor fails to reach in time is given a pithy dying remark that seems to come out of left field and fall a bit flat in context but lends itself admirably to an evaluation of the movie itself: "What s---!"