Arts » Movies

Remembering Jeanne Moreau

by David Lamble
Saturday Aug 12, 2017

The recent death of French New Wave film star Jeanne Moreau conjures up Gallic phrases such as femme fatale, or a doomed menage a trots. But Moreau would have not broken out of the pack had not one of her favorite directors, Louis Malle, not stripped her of makeup and shot her pouty lips and downturned countenance in natural light. Moreau wasn't especially pretty - no Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, or Lana Turner - but her ability to radiate the frisson of an adult love scene was box-office magic when Hollywood's production code restricted even hetero married couples to separate onscreen beds.

Moreau's life (1928-2017) and films movingly illustrate the fleeting nature of stardom. Her career-changing moment came in Malle's 1958 sizzler "The Lovers," where her bored hausfrau staged what The New York Times claims was a "clearly orgasmic moment, considered scandalous at the time." Four years later she co-starred in Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," a love triangle beginning in WWI in which she eventually seduced and led a Frenchman (Henri Serre) and a German (Oskar Werner) to their deaths. This great film would be taught to generations of film students.

Perhaps part of the secret of Moreau's appeal to American filmmakers and fans was her unwillingness to have much to do with the Hollywood studio system. To see her you had to make the pilgrimage to an art-house. You might see her as Italian screen lover Marcello Mast's "The Night" (1961), or as an extremely demanding servant in Luis Bunuel's "Diary of a Chambermaid" (1964), a cruel seducer in "Eva" (1962) or a revenge-minded re-wed widow in "The Bride Wore Black" (1968).

Although her big-screen sex roles diminished with time, Moreau continued getting awards for breakthrough turns in films without the same notoriety. In 1960, she shared the Cannes best actress prize as a murder witness in Peter Brooks' "Moderato Cantabile." In the UK she won Britain's Bafta (1967 best foreign actress) for playing Brigitte Bardot's striptease partner in "Viva Maria!" And she finally won a French best actress Cesar in 1992, for portraying a con woman in the comedy "The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea."

Of her American work the highlights were John Frankenheimer's war drama "The Train" (1964) co-starring with Burt Lancaster; appearing as an aging European film star in "The Last Tycoon" (1976); and in a cameo as an elderly descendant of Cinderella in "Ever After" (1998). She appeared before the cameras four times for Orson Welles, all in European productions.
Moreau was a person without peer to the French, who treat the celebration of their icons like a civic religion. In her final years she continued dropping into film projects: Her final screen turn was in 2015, appearing in a cameo as the protagonist's grandmother in Alex Lutz's film comedy "Le Talent de Mes Amis."

Her stage career included winning France's 1988 Moliere award for her performance in "Le Recit de la Servante Zerline." Plus she had a singing career, releasing several albums. She directed a trio of films, including a 1983 documentary about the silent-screen star Lillian Gish. Finally, she won state honors never before bestowed on a female performer: was made an officer of the Legion of Honor and was the first woman inducted into the Academie des Beaux-Arts. The ultimate honor was to have her passing announced by French President Emmanuel Macron: "We could say about Jeanne Moreau that part of cinema legend is gone. But her whole work was precisely about never freezing her art into a mythology, and never locking herself into the respectable status of the 'great actress.' She had in her eye a sparkle that deflected deference and inspired insolence, freedom, the turbulence of life that she liked so much."

Born in Paris Jan. 23, 1928, the daughter of the owner of a Montmartre restaurant and hotel and his British-born wife, Jeanne Moreau chose to become an actress after seeing her first play, "Antigone," when she was 15. When she told her father this, he slapped her. In her eyes Moreau found her father's reaction a never-ending spur. "It forces you toward excellence," she told the French newspaper Le Figaro in 2001. "All my life I wanted to prove to my father that I was right."

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