French ac­tress fear­lessly played com­plex women

JEANNE MOREAU, 1928 - 2017

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Jen Yam­ato

Jeanne Moreau, the French ac­tress and New Wave icon who brought sublime com­plex­ity to her per­for­mances in films such as François Truf­faut’s “Jules et Jim,” Louis Malle’s “El­e­va­tor to the Gal­lows,” Jacques Demy’s “Bay of An­gels” and Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni’s “La Notte,” died Mon­day at age 89.

Com­mand­ing and cap­ti­vat­ing even in qui­etude, Moreau was un­afraid to let the seams of life show in her on­screen roles. The most cel­e­brated among them al­lowed her to ex­ist in ev­ery frame with a fe­ro­cious and un­flinch­ing au­then­tic­ity still sel­dom af­forded to women in film.

Her nat­u­rally down­turned pout could light up in a mil­lisec­ond, but the cir­cles un­der her smol­der­ing eyes and the dart­ing in­tel­li­gence be­hind her gaze hinted at a world-weari­ness, a sense of grounded au­thor­ity that helped her em­body the epit­ome of French cool.

Her passing was con­firmed by French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, who de­scribed the stage and screen star in a man­ner be­fit­ting the avowedly un­sen­ti­men­tal French icon: “Jeanne Moreau was an artist in­volved in the whirlpool of life with ab­so­lute free­dom.”

Un­apolo­getic in her power both on­screen and off, Moreau was a fix­ture of the French cinema scene from the start of its most po­tent pe­riod. In 1958, a decade into her act­ing ca­reer and al­ready an es­tab­lished stage tal­ent, she starred as a woman fran­ti­cally search­ing Paris for the lover with whom she has plot­ted to mur­der her hus­band, in Malle’s crime noir de­but “El­e­va­tor to the Gal­lows.”

In one of the film’s most evoca­tive scenes, Moreau wan­ders the streets silently

but for a lonely, melan­cholic Miles Davis score, a se­quence that etched her uniquely ex­pres­sive face into the mem­o­ries of gen­er­a­tions of French New Wave devo­tees.

She re­united with Malle a year later in “The Lovers,” win­ning a Venice Film Fes­ti­val New Cinema prize for her por­trayal of an un­hap­pily mar­ried woman who finds sex­ual lib­er­a­tion in an af­fair with a younger man.

The film proved con­tro­ver­sial in its state­side re­lease when a male judge in Ohio deemed its sug­ges­tive love scene — the first to de­pict fe­male or­gasm — to be un­law­fully ob­scene. The U.S. Supreme Court proved de­cid­edly more French in its views on eroti­cism in art, over­turn­ing the ob­scen­ity charge. (Lead­ing to the in­fa­mous “I know it when I see it” def­i­ni­tion of pornog­ra­phy.)

Moreau quickly be­came a fa­vorite of the film­mak­ers of the Nou­velle Vague (as the New Wave was known in France), work­ing with great di­rec­tors who knew un­can­nily well how to uti­lize her fear­less­ness, her emo­tive fea­tures, and the deep well­spring of haunted, haunt­ing fem­i­nin­ity that set her apart from her peers.

In 1961 she starred op­po­site Mar­cello Mas­troianni and Mon­ica Vitti in An­to­nioni’s “La Notte,” breath­ing life and tragic au­then­tic­ity into another por­trayal of do­mes­tic fem­i­nine en­nui. The next year she co-starred in “The Trial” for Or­son Welles, a film­maker she’d later re­unite with on “Chimes at Mid­night” and “The Im­mor­tal Story,” and who fa­mously called her “the great­est ac­tress in the world.”

She won act­ing prizes at the Cannes and Karlovy Vary film fes­ti­vals, re­spec­tively, for her turns in Peter Brook’s drama “Moder­ato Cantabile” and Luis Buñuel’s satire “Di­ary of a Cham­ber­maid.” Yet another Malle film, the bur­lesque buddy com­edy “Viva Maria!” op­po­site Brigitte Bar­dot, won Moreau a Bri­tish Academy of Film and Tele­vi­sion Arts award as best for­eign ac­tress.

But it was 1962’s “Jules et Jim” that made Moreau an in­ter­na­tional star and gave her the free­dom to play within the kind of con­tra­dic­tory na­tures still sel­dom granted fe­male per­form­ers. As the mag­netic and im­pul­sive Cather­ine, Moreau is the force at the cen­ter of Truf­faut’s cel­e­brated New Wave clas­sic and the fo­cal point of its Bo­hemian menage a trois tragedy.

Moreau and Truf­faut would re­unite on another of the ac­tress’ iconic ti­tles, the 1968 re­venge thriller “The Bride Wore Black.”

Moreau was born Jan. 23, 1928, to a French hote­lier and an An­gloIr­ish dancer. She came of age in war­time France and lived in Paris dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion. When her par­ents split, younger sis­ter Michelle moved to Eng­land with their mother. Moreau chose to stay in France.

Af­ter tak­ing in a pro­duc­tion of “Antigone,” the young Moreau set her sights on act­ing, a de­ci­sion that re­sulted in her father slap­ping her when she de­clared her in­ten­tion. Within a few years, Moreau be­came the youngest mem­ber of the ComédieFrançaise drama troupe.

It was af­ter see­ing Moreau star on stage in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ” that Malle cast her in “Gal­lows.” Her love af­fair with Malle, in ad­di­tion to well-pub­li­cized ro­mances with Truf­faut, her “Made­moi­selle” di­rec­tor Tony Richard­son, “Monte Walsh” co-star Lee Marvin and de­signer Pierre Cardin, would also be­come part of her off­screen leg­end.

She was mar­ried twice: first, to film­maker Jean-Louis Richard, with whom she made “Mata Hari, Agent H21” and had a son, artist Jerome Richard; and later to di­rec­tor Wil­liam Fried­kin.

Of­ten re­ferred to as “the think­ing man’s femme fa­tale,” Moreau would later ad­mit that the pres­sures of global star­dom grew to be un­bear­able. In 1976 she starred in her de­but as a screen­writer and di­rec­tor with the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal “Lu­miere,” a drama cen­tered around four ac­tresses of dif­fer­ent ages deal­ing with their ca­reers, men and one another.

Speak­ing with a starstruck Roger Ebert about why it took 28 years in the film busi­ness to make her first pic­ture as di­rec­tor, Moreau lam­basted the con­de­scen­sion with which women in the in­dus­try are treated.

“It makes me mad when peo­ple call it a ‘woman’s pic­ture.’ Be­cause there are four women in it? But there are men too. And the whole idea of say­ing ‘a woman’s pic­ture’ is in­sult­ing. Be­cause with a movie like, ah, ‘Le Sting’ — did they call that a ‘man’s pic­ture’?”

She had con­tin­ued to work in re­cent years, ap­pear­ing in the 2015 film “Le Tal­ent de Mis Amis.” In 1998 she was the sub­ject of a trib­ute at the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences, though the Os­car was the rare statue that eluded her dur­ing a ca­reer that spanned more than six decades.

“I don’t go down mem­ory lane, I don’t give a damn about the past, but now I see I was wrong,” Moreau said at the time, a nod to her re­luc­tance to watch her work out­side of special oc­ca­sions like the Academy trib­ute.

“The past was good. The woman who stands be­fore you was made by that past. I look at that young woman, and I rec­og­nize my­self. I feel the same now as then. I’ll tell you some­thing: Age isn’t age!”

STR AFP/Getty Images

COM­MAND­ING AND CAP­TI­VAT­ING Ac­tress Jeanne Moreau, shown dur­ing film­ing of “Eva” in 1961, had a fear­less­ness, emo­tive fea­tures and a deep well­spring of haunted, haunt­ing fem­i­nin­ity that set her apart from her peers.

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