ON a dreary, rainy morning in Toronto, French filmmaker Francois Ozon reads the newspaper and sips a diet soda as he waits for Jeanne Moreau.
One of the grandes dames of European art cinema, Moreau has starred in such classics as "Jules and Jim" and "Diary of a Chambermaid" and has worked with a diverse group of directors that includes Michelangelo Antonioni, Orson Welles and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In Ozon's newest film, "Time to Leave," which opened July 21 in Los Angeles, she has a small but pivotal role as the grandmother of a self-centered photographer (Melvil Poupaud) who's grappling with the news he has cancer and is soon to die.
Moreau makes something of an entrance as she crosses the sprawling hotel suite, dropping one shoulder and executing a small stutter step. Elegantly dressed in white trousers and a black tuxedo jacket, she offers a visiting journalist something to drink before settling onto a couch and arranging her cigarettes and lighter in front of her.
But the politesse evaporates when the journalist shifts his attention to ask Ozon how he came to cast such a legendary actress in his film. "So I don't have to be here?" Moreau interrupts. It's more statement than question, and before receiving an answer, she's picked up her things and walked out.
Ozon's unblinking nonchalance gives the impression that he is used to used to handling the occasional diva moment. In addition to Moreau, he's worked with such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert and Charlotte Rampling as well as such younger spitfire ingenues as Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier, and he's developed the requisite delicate touch and unflappable outlook.
A seemingly natural-born charmer with a playfully firm yet polite manner, he reflects on the art of wrangling the outsized personalities of his singular leading women as he sits, months later, in the offices of Strand Releasing, the film's American distributor, preparing to present "Time to Leave" at the Los Angeles Film Festival. He's currently finishing the English-language "Angel," starring Rampling and Romola Garai.
The director, 38, says he first realized his affinity for working with actresses, particularly older ones, while directing Rampling in 2000's "Under the Sand," a mood piece that set out the themes of grieving and loss he returns to in "Time to Leave." (Rampling also appeared in what is likely Ozon's best-known film in America, the hazy, sexed-up mystery "Swimming Pool.") Ozon is aware of what veteran performers bring to the screen, the resonances of prior roles.
"It's part of the game in the casting," he explains. For "8 Women," the star-studded comic whodunit that brought together Deneuve, Huppert, Ardant, Ledoyen, Sagnier and Emannuelle Beart, "I didn't originally have the idea for the cast to be big stars. Suddenly the casting director realized it would be funny to have the fight in the film be between two recognizable actresses. So you want a fight between which diva and which diva? You work with the image.
"I'm a cinephile. It's very different when you decide to discover someone or when you work with an actor who already has a career. For Charlotte, she had a very glamorous, very erotic image during the '70s, and in 'Under the Sand' I asked her to be a very casual, very normal wife. We tried to play against her image, but I can't change who she is -- she's beautiful and sexy."
With the attention Ozon gets for his work with actresses, it is easy to overlook his affinity with male actors, apparent most notably in the fine central performance he gets in "Time To Leave" from Poupaud, a young actor esteemed in France.
Still, directing him was a challenge, Ozon says. "I wanted to work with someone my own age and try to do the same work. It was very difficult -- I didn't have the right distance. I have to say, it's easier when I work with actresses because I know better what I want.
"Sometimes I had the feeling of being in front of a mirror, seeing myself, and I hated that. I do films to be behind the camera, not in front of the camera. I'm sure I say very intimate things about myself in all my films, but it's better to say it not too directly, to be hidden behind a woman."
Ozon tailored Moreau's role to make it more closely conform to her own life, including offhanded details she had revealed to him -- the vitamins she takes, her habit of sleeping in the nude.
"When you have an actress like Jeanne Moreau," he explains, "you can't forget it's Jeanne Moreau. So the closer she is to the character, the better. The way the scenes are shot, it's the heart of the film -- you have to believe in those scenes. If you see Jeanne Moreau in the film, it's not a problem."
That's not to say working with cinema legends is without its frustrations. Ozon has learned that the care and handling of such actresses, who carry great cultural meaning both on and off the screen, requires equal parts sensitivity and whip-cracking.