Jeanne Moreau, French actress and New Wave icon, was a pioneer of unflinching portrayals of complex women
Jeanne Moreau, the French actress and New Wave icon who brought sublime complexity to her performances in films such as François Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim,” Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows,” Jacques Demy’s “Bay of Angels” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte,” died Monday at the age of 89.
Commanding and captivating even in quietude, Moreau was unafraid to let the seams of life show in her onscreen roles. The most celebrated among them allowed her to exist in every frame with a ferocious and unflinching authenticity still seldom afforded to women in film.
Her naturally downturned pout could light up in a millisecond, but the circles under her smoldering eyes and the darting intelligence behind her gaze hinted at a world-weariness, a sense of grounded authority that helped her embody the epitome of French cool.
Her passing was confirmed by French president Emmanuel Macron, who described the stage and screen icon in a manner befitting the avowedly unsentimental French icon: “Jeanne Moreau was an artist involved in the whirlpool of life with absolute freedom.”
Unapologetic in her power both onscreen and off, Moreau was a fixture of the French cinema scene from the start of its most potent period. In 1958, a decade into her acting career and already an established stage talent, she starred as a woman frantically searching Paris for the lover with whom she has plotted to murder her husband, in Malle’s crime noir debut “Elevator to the Gallows.”
In one of the film’s most evocative scenes, Moreau wanders the streets silently but for a lonely, melancholic Miles Davis score, a sequence that etched her uniquely expressive face into the memories of generations of French New Wave devotees.
She reunited with Malle a year later in “The Lovers,” winning a Venice Film Festival New Cinema prize for her portrayal of an unhappily married woman who finds sexual liberation in an affair with a younger man.
The film proved controversial in its stateside release when a male judge in Ohio deemed its suggestive love scene — the first to depict female orgasm — to be unlawfully obscene. The United States Supreme Court proved decidedly more French in its views on eroticism in art, overturning the obscenity charge. (Leading to the infamous “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography.)
Moreau quickly became a favorite of the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague (as the New Wave was known in France), working with great directors who knew uncannily well how to utilize her fearlessness, her emotive features, and the deep wellspring of haunted, haunting femininity that set her apart from her peers.
In 1961 she starred opposite Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s “La Notte,” breathing life and tragic authenticity into another portrayal of domestic feminine ennui. The next year she co-starred in “The Trial” for Orson Welles, a filmmaker she’d later reunite with on “Chimes at Midnight” and “The Immortal Story,” and who famously called her “the greatest actress in the world.”
She won acting prizes at the Cannes and Karlovy Vary film festivals, respectively, for her turns in Peter Brook’s drama “Moderato Cantabile” and Luis Buñuel’s satire “Diary of a Chambermaid.” Yet another Malle film, the burlesque buddy comedy “Viva Maria!” opposite Brigitte Bardot, won Moreau a BAFTA as best foreign actress.
But it was 1962’s “Jules et Jim” that made Moreau an international star and gave her the freedom to play within the kind of contradictory natures still seldom granted female performers. As the magnetic and impulsive Catherine, Moreau is the force at the center of Truffaut’s celebrated New Wave classic and the focal point of its Bohemian ménage a trois tragedy.
Moreau and Truffaut would reunite on another of the actress’ iconic titles, the 1968 revenge thriller “The Bride Wore Black.”
Born on January 23, 1928, to a French hotelier and an Anglo-Irish dancer, Moreau came of age in wartime France and lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation. When her parents split, younger sister Michelle moved to England with their mother. Moreau chose to stay in France.
After taking in a production of “Antigone,” the young Moreau set her sights on acting, a decision that resulted in her father slapping her when she declared her intention. Within a few years, Moreau became the youngest member of the Comédie-Française drama troupe.
It was after seeing Moreau star on stage in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that Malle cast her in “Gallows.” Her love affair with Malle, in addition to well-publicized romances linking her to Truffaut, her “Mademoiselle” director Tony Richardson, “Monte Walsh” co-star Lee Marvin and designer Pierre Cardin, would also become part of her offscreen legend.
She was married twice: First, to filmmaker Jean-Louis Richard, with whom she made a movie (“Mata Hari, Agent H21”) and had a son, artist Jerome Richard; and later to director William Friedkin.
Often referred to as “the thinking man’s femme fatale,” Moreau would later admit that the pressures of global stardom grew to be unbearable. In 1976 she starred in her own debut as a screenwriter and director with the autobiographical “Lumiere,” a drama centered around four actresses of different ages dealing with their careers, their men, and one another.
Speaking with a starstruck Roger Ebert about why it took 28 years in the film business to make her first picture as director, Moreau lambasted the condescension with which women in the industry are treated.
“It makes me mad when people call it a ‘woman’s picture.’ Because there are four women in it? But there are men, too. And the whole idea of saying ‘a woman’s picture’ is insulting. Because with a movie like, ah, ‘Le Sting’ — did they call that a ‘man’s picture’?”
After “Lumiere” she would direct twice again, going behind the camera for 1979’s “L’Adolescente,” about a family who moves from Paris to the French countryside on the eve of World War II, and again for a 1983 television documentary about actress Lillian Gish.
She’d continued to work in recent years, appearing in the 2015 film “Le Talent de Mis Amis.” In 1998 she was the subject of a tribute at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, though the Oscar was the rare statue that eluded her during a career that spanned over six decades.
“I don’t go down memory lane, I don’t give a damn about the past, but now I see I was wrong,” Moreau, said at the time, a nod to her reluctance to watch her work outside of special occasions like the Academy tribute.
“The past was good. The woman who stands before you was made by that past. I look at that young woman, and I recognize myself. I feel the same now as then. I’ll tell you something: Age isn’t age!”
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