Jeannne Moreau, the icon of French cinema, never believed in nostalgia. In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, she asked, “Nostalgia for what? 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 dead before they die…Living is risking.”
How often we allow what was once dangerous and spry to become entombed in the wax museum of pop culture nostalgia. Moreau, witty – propulsive – anti-establishment (anti every single establishment, including anti-establishment posturing) to the very end, escaped this ignominious fate because she never stopped moving.
Jeanne Moreau – A Beginning
Moreau, in many ways the archetypal French actress and a great bastion of cinematic Continentalism, was actually half English. Her English mother was a dancer Folies Bergère in Paris, France’s most famous music hall. Moreau dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to pursue her interest in theater; she later joined the Conservatoire de Paris, a long-running music and drama school that opened amidst The Reign of Terror.
Jeanne Moreau’s father, a Parisian restaurateur, openly scorned the theater, possibly because of his own troubled relationship with his wife, attempted to disabuse the girl of her career choice, often violently. Nonetheless, the young Moreau persisted. By the mid-1950’s Moreau was a star of the stage, and firmly entrenched in French high culture. Cinema, at the time, lacked the cultural luster of legitimate theater.
Moreau had begun acting in mainstream cinema as early as 1952, however it would be her pioneering anti-establishment work with director Louis Malle that would cement her status.
In 1958 she would star in his ‘Elevator to the Gallows’, a jazzy thriller shot on location – a rarity for French cinema – and an important precursor to the rule breaking looseness of the forthcoming New Wave. Importantly, Malle used little make-up on his star, which at the time was a massive break with the established rules of glamour shooting.
Malle revealed what he referred to as her “essential qualities”, the idiosyncratic beauty of her slightly asymmetrical face, and the modern sexuality that would define her, along with Goddard’s muse Anna Karina, as the feminine face of La Nouvelle Vague.
The Supreme Court & Jeanne Moreau
Jeanne Moreau would again team with Louis Malle for her next film the controversial ‘The Lovers’ (1959). The story of a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, ‘The Lovers’ was the catalyst for a groundbreaking US Supreme Court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, when the film was banned in Ohio.
In a famous concurrence, Justice Stewart memorably declared:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
Her most famous role was in 1962 in François Truffaut’s ‘Jules and Jim’ as Catherine, the centerpiece of the ill-fated love triangle. Her performance embodies one the actress’s greatest traits, her internal bipolarism. Namely the push-pull between light and dark, happiness and sadness, smoldering sexuality and repressed ennui.
During this era she fashioned indelible performances in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘La Notte’ (1961), and Luis Buñuel’s ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ (1964). ‘La Notte’ is the second part of Antonioni’s dislocation trilogy. The film charts the disintegrating marriage of a couple ensconced in the rarefied, almost hermetically sealed world of high art. ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ is Buñuel at his most bitingly satirical, and features one of Moreau’s most complex performances as a maid who might not be so different from her vicious bourgeoisie employers. She also appeared in four films directed by Orson Welles, a close friend of hers.
Her career faced a downturn in the Seventies and continued to slide in the 1980’s. Nonetheless she continued to seek out new and edgy experiences, including experimenting with directing. A small but pivotal role in Luc Besson’s ‘Nikita’ (1990) proves that she lost none of her poise in the years since her heyday.
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Jeanne Moreau – a Grande Dame of French Cinema
In a 2001 interview, Jeanne Moreau was asked about her image as a Grande Dame of French Cinema. The actress replied in her smoky resonant voice, “That’s what they say because of longevity. As soon as an actress is past 40, they call her a grande dame. ‘Oh God, she’s still alive!’”
Moreau was still alive, still moving, and still always ready to work – to amaze – to shock – and to never look back.