The French actress defined New Wave cinema, gave the female orgasm its cinematic debut, and combined expressive beauty with electric intelligence.
Jeanne Moreau, icon of French New Wave film, died this week, aged 89. Best known for her role in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, the actress embodied a liberated new age of cinematic expression, as much as fresh levels of female complexity, sexuality, and intelligence on screen.
Born in 1928, Moreau was a child of Montmartre. Her mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a member of the Tiller Girls dance troupe, and met her father, Anatole Moreau, while performing at the Folies Bergère. At first, Moreau set out to follow in her mother’s dance steps, but changed her mind following a trip to the Comédie-Française theatre. “That was passion,” she recalled, “I knew at once I wanted to be an actress. It was not a money or a fame thing but an escape from real life.”
Still from François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, featured in TASCHEN’s François Truffaut. The Complete Films, and showing Moreau in her most iconic role, Catherine, a new kind of liberated woman on screen who follows her instinct, breaks the rules, swaps partners, jumps in the Seine, and cross-dresses as ‘Thomas’.
When Moreau told her parents of her new ambition, her father called her a whore. She went ahead anyway, enrolling at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique aged 18. It was an independent resolve against expectation that Moreau would maintain throughout her career.
In 1958, she shattered cinematic propriety with her role as bored housewife Jeanne Tournier in Louis Malle’s The Lovers. Some three decades before Harry Met Sally lent the cinematic climax whole new meaning, Moreau’s sex scene with on screen lover Bernard gave the female orgasm its original film debut. Not only did the scene outrage contemporary audiences (a male judge in Ohio deemed the movie to be unlawfully obscene), it also put an end to her own affair with Malle. “Louis could no longer stand to see me as others then saw me, and as only he had seen me until then,” she would later remark. “I knew that if I played the love scenes just as Louis wanted, he would love me as an actress but hate me as a woman. I could not play them without betraying him.”
Stills from Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Scaffold (1958), featured in TASCHEN’s 100 All Time Favorite Movies. The film, a noirish crime drama boasting an improvised Miles Davis soundtrack, brought Moreau and her distinctive features new levels of fame.
It was in her collaborations with Malle, namely Elevator to the Scaffold (also 1958) that Moreau also eschewed the heavy screen make-up favored for film actresses of the time. With her downturned pout and bags beneath her eyes, she was not considered a photogenic beauty by contemporary standards, but she was glad to have her face express, rather than cower beneath cosmetics. In one of Elevator to the Scaffold’s most famous scenes, she is shot close up for over two minutes, roaming Paris by night to a Miles Davis score, every sigh, every shift to the contours of her mouth, aching with unspoken feeling.
Jeanne Moreau photographed by Peter Lindbergh in 2004, aged 76. In TASCHEN’s Peter Lindergh: A Different View On Fashion Photography, Lindbergh names Moreau as an all time favorite model.
Moreau insisted upon the emergence of a human being, beyond “beauty, sex, and titillation.” In various roles, from Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black to Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story, she appeared looking tired, anxious, and beleaguered. When Peter Lindbergh took her portrait in 2004, aged 76, he told her he would only use it without retouching. “What,” she countered, “would you want to retouch?” In TASCHEN’s Peter Lindergh: A Different View On Fashion Photography, Lindbergh names Moreau as an all-time favorite model.
Still from Jules et Jim, featured in François Truffaut. The Complete Films. Truffaut moved the camera freely around Moreau’s character of Catherine, lending her a permanent sense of physical and social freedom.
For Truffaut and his iconoclast companions of the French New Wave, Moreau was the perfect embodiment of freedom and a new cinematic standard. In 1962,Jules et Jimhit the screens, and Moreau would cast aside yet further shackles as her most iconic character, Catherine. Seen almost exclusively through the eyes of the title characters, Jules and Jim, Catherine is impulsive, moody, and irresistible to the male protagonists, an intoxicating mix of effervescence and erraticism. Over the course of the film, she cross-dresses, cheats, jumps into the Seine, swaps partners, sets herself on fire, points guns, and ultimately kills both herself and Jim. With Truffaut’s camera moving freely about her, she appears unfettered by any given standard, radiating a permanent aura of lightness, space, and sudden - often explosive - possibilities.
Complex and sexy, Moreau was also smart as hell. Her intelligence came without pretension, but with finesse and expansive curiosity. In the words of a New Yorker tribute “She was a queen of intellect—but an intellect that was no cloistered bookishness but an idea and an ideal of culture that enriched experience, envisioned progress, looked ardently at the times.” As well as Truffaut and Welles, she befriended and collaborated with a number of illustrious writers and directors, among them Jean Cocteau, Marguerite Duras, Luis Buñuel and Henry Miller, and excelled with complex, analytical scripts, including Antonioni’s La Notte, in which she stars as Lidia, the electrically intelligent and sensitive wife of an egomaniacal novelist, played by Marcello Mastraionni. Set against oppressive Milanese architecture, the movie is an exquisitely moody contemplation of identity, marriage, fame, and thinking itself.
A celebrated stage actress as well as vocalist, Moreau also worked behind the camera, as a writer, producer, and director of three films. Her career was bedecked with accolades, including BAFTA Awards in 1963, 1967, and 1996; the stage Molière Award in 1988; the Best Actress César in 1988 and 1992; César Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1995 and 2008; and an honorary Oscar in 1998. She was an officer of the French Legion of Honor and in 2000 was the first woman admitted into the country’s Académie des Beaux-Arts.
At the prospect of death, Moreau saw only more interest in life: “Death is an absolute mystery,” she remarked. “We are all vulnerable to it, it's what makes life interesting and suspenseful.”