Jeanne Moreau (1928 – 2017 ):
“Nostalgia is when you want things to stay the same. I know so many people staying in the same place. And I think, my God, look at them! They’re death before they die. That’s a terrible risk. Living is risking.”
Moreau was the very essence of French Cinema, French life, and the French attitude. She was famously unsentimental and believed in living in the moment. She did not like the romanticizing and continued celebration of the “French New Wave” era that she helped define.
A director, screenwriter and singer as well as a stage and screen actor, Moreau was first noticed by movie fans for a series of roles in films considered part of the French New Wave, most famously her performance in Jules Et Jim (1962).
She made Hollywood films also, including The Last Tycoon (1976) and Orson Welles‘ Chimes At Midnight (1965). She was embraced by her gay fans for her work in Querelle (1982) directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and starring Brad Davis, adapted from a novel by gay writer Jean Genet.
She had that sensual, pouting mouth, smoky voice, and her combination of sharp intelligence and smoldering sexuality were the embodiment of a French woman, although she was half English. Moreau:
“I’m very proud of being half English and I think as time passes my best English qualities are more and more visible. I’m pleased I can be outrageous as only the English can be.”
I wonder if outrageous meant being her own woman, expressing her opinions unreservedly, or enjoying many well-publicized love affairs.
When she told her father of her acting ambitions, he called her a whore, but her mother supported her, and she started studying acting when she was 17 years old. In the 1950s, she was an established stage actor and a major player at the famed Comédie-Française.
Her stage triumphs included Jean Cocteau‘s La Machine Infernale, with Jean Marais; Eliza Doolittle in G.B Shaw‘s Pygmalion, directed by Marais; and Maggie in Tennessee William‘s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, directed by Peter Brook, where she was spotted by 25-year-old film director, Louis Malle.
Moreau achieved screen stardom only with her 20th film, Malle’s first solo feature, the noir Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator To The Gallows), with a great score by Miles Davis. Her star status was obvious in Malle’s Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958. The two films were quite controversial; Les Amants was subject of an obscenity case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
She won many awards including a BAFTA for Viva Maria! (1965), and the César Award for The Old Lady Who Walked In The Sea (1992).
It was Jules Et Jim that made Moreau an international star. This stylish film is set during World War I and is the story of a love triangle between Moreau’s character, Catherine, and friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre). It remains influential and synonymous with the French New Wave movement, regularly appearing on “Best Films Of All Time” lists.
She made more than 75 films in a career that lasted six and a half decades. Her final feature film was Gebo E A Sombra (Gebo And Shadow) in 2012, playing opposite the great Claudia Cardinale. It was directed by Manoel de Oliveira , who was 103-years-old when it was made.
Throughout her life, Moreau had strong and lasting friendships with several prominent writers, including Jean Cocteau, Genet, Henry Miller, and Marguerite Duras. She was married to filmmaker Jean-Louis Richard (1949–1964), and then to American film director William Friedkin (1977–1979). Bisexual director Tony Richardson left his wife, Vanessa Redgrave, for her in 1967, but they never married. She also had affairs with Malle, Truffaut, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, and Miles Davis.
In Les Amants, Moreau is wonderful as the bored provincial wife finding sexual gratification outside marriage. But, with its nude love scenes, it was one of the causes of the end of her affair with Malle. Moreau:
“Louis could no longer stand to see me as others then saw me, and as only he had seen me until then. I knew that if I played the love scenes just as Louis wanted, he would love me as an actor, but hate me as a woman. I could not play them without betraying him.”
However, they remained good friends for the rest of their lives; Malle even directed Moreau in two further films, Le Feu Follet (1963) and Viva Maria!.
She directed two well-made, rather old-fashioned films, Lumière (1976), which is about life of actors, and The Adolescent (1979), inspired by childhood during the Nazi occupation.
In English films, she plays a lesbian in Vicious Circle (1985), an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Huis Clos, and in The Clothes In The Wardrobe (1993), she portrays a free-spirited woman bringing brightness into a dull English family. She also continued to bring her heady combination of passion and intelligence to a new generation of French directors, such as Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990).
Moreau, in the longevity of her allure, has few equals among female actors. In François Ozon’s Le Temps Qui Reste ( 2005), she is the confidante to her dying gay grandson; and in Oliveira’s Gebo Et L’Ombre (2012), she delivers in an amusing small role.
She was a good friend of Sharon Stone, who presented an Academy Of Motion Pictures life tribute to Moreau in 1998. Orson Welles called her “The greatest actress in the world”.
“People, especially women, worry so much about ageing. But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.”