There was the dry, hoarse voice that hinted at a million smoky Gauls. There were black eyes, carnal and enigmatic. There was the dark, slightly downward curve of her lips, a sultry pout that could turn capriciously into a seductive smile. She was playful and dangerous.
French actress Jeanne Moreau, who became one of the most popular and haunting movie stars of the 1960s, died on July 31 at the age of 89 in Paris. Her career spanned seven decades and spanned nearly 150 film and television roles, making her the thinking man’s femme fatale.
Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jacques Demy, Tony Richardson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were among the international directors who chose her in their films. Most spoke rapturously about Moreau – Welles called her “the greatest actress in the world” – and a few became his lovers.
Critics and audiences alike found Moreau bewitching, especially in roles in which she embodied liberated sexuality or in which her outward composure masked boundless complexity. Film scholar David Shipman once described her as the “goddess of the love of arthouse.”
She was associated with the French New Wave, a cinematic movement that swept aside conventional characters and forms of storytelling. Perhaps her most enduring New Wave film is Jules et Jim de Truffaut (1962), in which she plays a free spirit at the center of a love triangle set before and after WWI. She portrays an exquisite, elusive, and shaped chameleon – Shifting and opposing male roles (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) projecting their desires onto her.
Moreau was radiant with femininity in the role, even in the scenes where she sported a fake mustache, cap, and cigar. She sings the film’s theme song, “The Whirlwind of Life”, whose lyrics about a “femme fatale who was fatal to me” anticipate the film’s tragic climax.
The film was surprising, observed film historian Jeanine Basinger, for its portrayal of a woman demanding “equal choices, equal sexuality without being presented as a harpy.” Moreau’s performance helped elevate him to number one stardom.
“There is no actress in Hollywood or in Europe who can match the depth and breadth of her art,” Time magazine said in a 1965 cover story on Moreau, noting her portrayal of a nun during the French Revolution in “Le Dialogue des Carmélites” (1960) and a modern courtesan in “Eva” (1962).
Moreau excelled in stories of constraint. In “Les Amants” by Malle (1958), she abandons her child and bourgeois husband for a stranger who revives her sexual ardor. The depiction of female sexual pleasure in the film was featured in a U.S. Supreme Court test of obscenity laws, prompting Justice Potter Stewart to utter a memorable porn line: “I know that when I see it, and the film involved in this matter is not that. “
In “La Baie des Anges” by Demy (1963), dressed in a chic Pierre Cardin suit and peroxide blonde hair, she is a gambling addict from the Côte d’Azur who has abandoned her son. In Bunuel’s “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), she plays a servant who arouses and manipulates sexual and political tensions.
In “The Bride Was Black” by Truffaut (1968), she methodically takes revenge on the men responsible for her husband’s death on their wedding day. The plot of “Kill Bill” by Quentin Tarantino is heavily indebted to the film Truffault.
Basinger said Moreau continued to maintain a high-caliber career in Europe, but did not appreciate the enduring importance of European actresses such as Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, who embraced Hollywood and his advertising machine.
On the other hand, Moreau avoided the long contracts often required by the big studios, likening them to prison sentences. She played isolated roles in American films, but her mystique was often lost amid the teeming international castings of films such as “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1964). She said she accepted a role in “5 Branded Women” (1960), about Yugoslav partisans during World War II, because she needed to pay her taxes back quickly.
“Not only did they shave all of my hair, the photo was bad,” she later told the New York Times. “I considered myself rightly punished.”
In Europe, Moreau used her star power to help novice directors and actors she believed in. Her melancholy character helped found “Going Places” (1974), an otherwise bawdy anti-feminist comedy that helped make Gérard Depardieu a star. In the action thriller “La Femme Nikita” (1990), she was an etiquette scholar trying to turn an unruly street kid (Anne Parillaud) into a skilled assassin with female tricks.
“Smile when you don’t know something,” laughs Moreau’s character. “You won’t be smarter, but it’s good for others.”
Jeanne Moreau was born in Paris on January 23, 1928 and grew up in an unhappy home. Her mother was an English-born choir dancer, and her French father, a former cafe owner, was quick-tempered and quick to rage. At one point during the Nazi occupation, the family lived in a one-room apartment above a brothel.
The theater has become a way of escaping poverty and the hustle and bustle of the home. She often skipped school to attend plays and in 1944, at age 16, saw a production of “Antigone” by Jean Anouilh.
“I was surprised because in ‘Antigone’ the girl rebels,” Moreau told his biographer, Marianne Gray. “She resists authority. She’s not afraid of the weather. I wanted to be like her.”
In 1948, she became one of the youngest members in the history of the venerable Comédie-Française. She began to praise her performances on the Parisian stage, most notably as the sex-starved Maggie in a 1956 staging of the Tennessee Williams melodrama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.
By that time, she had starred in nearly two dozen films, generally wasted in part as a gangster moll. But Malle, a little-known documentary filmmaker, was dazzled by “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. He went backstage and begged Moreau to star in his first feature film, a low-budget drama called “The Elevator to the Gallows” (1958).
His agent called him under his talent. But Moreau liked Malle’s passion, and she fired her agent.
The film, now considered a minor classic, was a crime story: two lovers plot to kill the woman’s wealthy husband. During long sequences of the film, enhanced by the gloomy score of trumpeter Miles Davis, the camera follows Moreau wandering the streets of Paris, pondering the outcome of the plan she has implemented.
“His greatness is, of course, that within seconds you can see mood swings on his face,” Malle told Gray.
Moreau’s subsequent performance in “The Lovers” led to a cascade of roles of scheming adulterers and frozen soul wives. Among them were director Roger Vadim’s jazz version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (1959); “Moderato Cantabile” (1960), with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the role of his worker lover; and Antonioni’s “La Notte” (1961) opposite Marcello Mastroianni as her equally numb husband.
She made film choices that seemed blind but were based mostly on her admiration for the director.
She took on small roles to work for Welles, who chose her as a drunken flirt in “The Trial” (1962), from the Franz Kafka story, and as the young girl Doll Tearsheet in “Chimes at Midnight “(1965).
For Malle, she agreed to “Viva Maria!” (1965), a ridiculous musical that starred her with Brigitte Bardot as unlikely sisters and Latin American revolutionaries. In “Miss” (1966), directed by Tony Richardson, she plays a sexually frustrated village teacher and sociopath who poisons wells and sets fire to them.
In the late 1970s, Moreau made two films that were critically acclaimed for their thoughtful portrayal of women’s lives – “Lumière” (1976) and “Adolescente” (1979). But she quickly returned to her acting career in film and on stage, sinking into fits of depression.
She made a triumphant world tour in the late 1980s in “The Handmaid’s Tale Zerline”, a nearly two-hour monologue about the complicated life of a maid. The play has generated renewed demand among filmmakers as diverse as Wim Wenders (“Until the End of the World”, 1991), Ismail Merchant (“The Owner”, 1996) and Amos Gitai (“Someday You Will Understand “, 2008), among many others.
Moreau’s marriages with actor and screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and director William Friedkin ended in divorce. She had a son, Jérôme, from her first marriage. The list of survivors could not be confirmed immediately. The French president’s office announced the death but did not disclose further details.
Moreau was sometimes romantically linked to Malle, Cardin and Richardson. She rarely lacked male companionship, explaining once in the kind of epigram that has become her trademark in interviews, “Age doesn’t protect you from love, but love, to a certain extent, protects you from age. “
Over a relentless career, Moreau has imbued his craft with an intuitive understanding of character and a sustained intensity.
“How annoyed I am to hear people talk about ‘the acting profession’,” she once told Time. “The only thing worse is when they say, ‘You’re a real pro.’ Playing isn’t a job at all, it’s a way of life – one complements the other.
“What an actor needs is a sense of involvement, an unconscious familiarity with his role, nothing more,” she added. “There’s no point in continuing the actual character experience. It’s absurd to think that you can really get into it for a tame little week, anyway. I never study my role at all until the camera rolls around. starts spinning, then pffft! – it starts. “
Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post