To watch Jeanne Moreau is to fall in love with her. Many a cigarette has dangled between her pillowy lips, and she somehow convinces us every time that smoking has never looked cooler (and, as a French actress, that’s certainly saying something). In her film, she has the voice to match—smoky, mysterious, and feminine—but her beautiful, sad eyes are always a giveaway that she isn't unfeeling. The bags under her eyes—carrying the weight of her life—are her trademark, her charm. For seven decades, this alluring presence graced the screen. On Monday, July 31, Moreau died at her home in Paris at the age of 89.
Moreau, born January 23, 1928, was a French New Wave icon, but a far more complicated, richer actress than her peers, like Anna Karina, Jean Seberg, or Brigitte Bardot. Despite early successes at the theater (she became the youngest member to join the Comédie-Française troupe at 20), she had a delayed start to her film career, first entering our conscience with Louis Malle’s debut, the Miles Davis-scored film noir, Elevator to the Gallows, in 1958, when she was 30. In that same year, she again collaborated with the director for the controversial The Lovers, in which she played an adulteress.
Still, many credit her real breakout to François Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules and Jim, which remains her most iconic role and a canonical fixture of many a film school syllabi. Playing the whimsical Catherine, Moreau became the center of a tumultuous ménage à trois between two men, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre).
Moreau often chose roles that gave her a bit of an edge. Even when laughing with glee, she did it with a hint of hysteria. You could love her but always knew she’d make you bleed. In paying tribute to the late actress, French president Emmanuel Macron said that Moreau “always rebelled against the established order.” Perhaps an early exposure to a production of Antigone was seminal to the roles Moreau would end up playing later in life. In the book La Moreau: A Biography of Jeanne Moreau, she told her author Marianne Gray: “I was amazed because in Antigone, the girl rebels. She resists authority. She is not afraid of time. I wanted to be like her.”
She faced opposition from her own father in her pursuit of professional acting, which made her want to do it even more.
The directors she collaborated with soon became a who’s-who of the ’60s: Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, 1961), Jacques Demy (Bay of Angels, 1963), Luis Buñuel (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964), Orson Welles (The Trial, 1962; The Immortal Story, 1968), and more, including repeats with Truffaut and Malle. Later, she also worked with legends like Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon, 1976) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Querelle, 1983).
Breaking out in her 30s meant that Moreau came to us as the woman we best remember her as. She entered the scene with the lived, complex maze of emotions behind that beautiful face. Just watch her walking in the rain in Elevator to the Gallows—thrilled and fearful but contained with such regal poise. She had a face that said everything yet gave away nothing.
“Femme fatale” was a label often attached to the actress. She literally sings the phrase in her Jules and Jim song, “Le Tourbillon de la Vie.” Her later roles in films such as The Bride Wore Black (her Truffaut reunion in 1968) secured that title; here, she embodies a vengeful widow with a kill list of men responsible for murdering her husband on their wedding day. Further examples include a dangerous heartbreaker in Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962) and a trickster maid in Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid. In real life, she had a string of lovers, including Miles Davis, Pierre Cardin, and her directors Truffaut, Malle, and Tony Richardson (who left his wife Vanessa Redgrave for her). She was married twice, first to Jean Louis-Richard, then to William Friedkin.
Fiercely independent both on and off the screen, Moreau inspired women of all kinds. In a 1976 Penthouse interview, godmother of punk rock Patti Smith was quoted saying, “I’m still pretty dumb about girl stuff. For a while I said, ‘Ah, girls are stupid.’ But after seeing all these Jeanne Moreau movies, I think being a girl is where it’s at. Like when I’m about 35 I’m gonna start wearing black cocktail dresses and become a real cunt.”
Though she didn’t make the big Hollywood crossover like some of her fellow European starlets, French New Wave without Moreau is impossible to imagine. In the ’70s and ’80s Moreau directed a few of her own films, the narrative dramas Lumiere (1976) and The Adolescent (1979) and documentary Lillian Gish, about the silent film actress. She received various accolades throughout her career, including a Cannes Film Festival best actress prize for Moderato Cantabile in 1960, the BAFTA award as best foreign actress for Viva Maria in 1967, and the coveted best actress César for The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1992).
It’s likely that Moreau is retching at all these tributes from heaven. Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival, wrote in a tweet: “She was strong and she didn’t like to see people pour their hearts out. Sorry, Jeanne, but this is beyond us. We are crying.” In 2001, she told The New York Times: “The cliché is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.”
Continue to burn bright, Ms. Moreau.
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