Eve (1962) rarely makes the lists of remembered films by Joseph Losey but it deserves a better shake. Very few directors have the courage to let Jeanne Moreau go like Losey does here, where he gives her plenty of room to play the shamelessly conniving seductress of the title. By current standards, Eve is old-fashioned, her wiles and stratagems strictly based on aligning herself with men for their power rather than tapping into her own. But even if it’s a bit dated, Eve remains an unusual portrait of an openly sadistic woman played to cauterizing perfection by Moreau.
Shot in black-and-white and set in Venice and Rome, Eve keys into the unseemly side of Italy that lurks behind all the tritely romantic settings flogged by travel brochures. Losey uses the creepiness of Venetian canals (their turbid water slowly but relentlessly eroding the buildings) to convey social decadence – several scenes could be a watery Via Veneto. It’s not the eerie effect achieved in Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973), which verged on horror. In Eve, decadence is horror enough.
Told in flashback, Eve is the story of Eve’s dalliance with Tyvian Jones (Stanley Baker), a Welsh writer plugging the adaptation of his novel at the film festival. He’s already involved with Francesca (Virna Lisi), who, despite her delicate loveliness, looks positively forlorn. Too much in love with Tyvian not to forgive him, Francesca has an almost infuriating, clamorous innocence – an adult Bambi. Lisi feels weak here: even when off-screen, Eve belongs to Moreau. And it’s in her scenes alone that the film really crackles. (Both Tyvian and Eve are unlikable, but, in the vernacular of the time, he’s a real ‘pseud’. The author photo Losey lingers on more than once – Tyvian posed in a miner’s helmet – makes his subsequent confessions of his fakery superfluous. Anyone who would sit for such a picture has plenty to hide.)
The film opens with a panorama of St. Mark’s Square, coming to rest on Adam and Eve (“and they were naked and unashamed” in voiceover), then cuts to Moreau, a courtesan, enclosed in a vaporetto with one of her clients. She says nothing, merely wipes the steam from the window, caresses him, smiles distractedly and looks away. Moreau’s performance is largely wordless throughout the film; silence her greatest ally, and Eve’s profound narcissism is confirmed with every silent gesture.
Before they’ve even met, Eve appears at Tyvian’s house in a rainstorm in the company of one of Tyvian’s friends. She heads direct for his bedroom to dry herself off. Never without her portable record player, her choice is always Billie Holiday (“Willow Weep for Me” in this scene, later “Loveless Love”, both meshing nicely with Michel Legrand’s Miles Davis-inspired score). Eve scopes out Francesca’s headshot, and finds her nightgown in Tyvian’s bed. Moreau then does a seductive dance, mussing and caressing her hair, slowly unzipping her dress, her back partially bared and erotically flirting with the camera, the slithering come-on directed at the audience yet not self-consciously so, Billie Holiday’s lyrics the only dialogue. She conquers Tyvian’s room, usurps him even before he arrives. By the time Tyvian returns, she has found her way to his huge tub and languishes – the operative verb for Moreau in this film – in the opaque, bubble-less bathwater.
Whereas Baker hits one melodramatic note at the outset and never varies, Moreau’s Eve becomes increasingly complex. Losey never shies away from allowing her a tremendous amount of power nor from allowing her character to be a heartless tease. Despite Moreau’s high-level femininity, she’s never tender. Eve’s lizardly home is full of unhatchable decorative eggs. When, completely in her power, Tyvian confesses that he stole his entire novel, his very soul in fact, from his brother, Eve coolly asks, “Does he need his soul?” As she listens impassively to him weep and moan in her lap, the camera closes in on Moreau, who looks sated – a raptor digesting a pretty good kill.
Few film directors rely on mirrors to the extent Losey does; perhaps his most famous still shows Dirk Bogarde and James Fox reflected together in the Servant (1963), a portent for the eventual capitulation of the master (Fox) to his employee. In Eve, scenes often open with the characters reflecting themselves in a mirror as the camera takes stock. Among the best is when Francesca catches Tyvian about to bed Eve, the three of them joined in the mirror, Eve at the forefront.
Like Losey’s fascination with using objects to block the initial view of a scene, the mirrors make for a theatricality that can seem stilted. But this, like the Sturm und Drang of the plot, is a small matter. In Eve, Losey showed Moreau to be subtle, relentless and unforgiving, rare qualities in the gentled universe of female film roles.