The unexpected was her forte
French actress Jeanne Moreau was a charming mix of contradictions.
Film critic Kenneth Turan remembers his friend, the late Jeanne Moreau.
It was news I had been dreading for years, and it came Monday. Jeanne Moreau is dead at 89.
As a critic, writing about actors is part of the job, but you don’t ordinarily meet them, much less form any kind of relationship with them. But Jeanne was different, and a copy of the New York Times was the start of it all.
In 1996, Jeanne was chairman of the Montreal World Film Festival jury that I was a member of, and my initial impression, that she was simultaneously spontaneous, conscientious and playful, never changed. As novelist Nadine Gordimer, who’d been on a jury with her at Cannes, said, she was “an unlikely combination, both imperious and lovable.”
Though she didn’t really remember, I’d met Jeanne years earlier, as a Washington Post journalist when she came through town promoting 1976’s “Lumiere,” her first film as a director.
“It’s very important that women make films,” she’d said with typical intelligence and directness. “In this huge concert, with a majority of masculine instruments, maybe some feminine instruments would bring a little harmony.”
A jury experience is more time intensive than an interview, as is tracking down the New York Times, a personal obsession, in a foreign country. When Jeanne, a fellow addict, saw me reading a copy and asked where I’d found it, I offered to buy one for her as well, and things went on from there.
Juries routinely exchange contact information when the festival is over, and Jeanne and I kept in touch. Because my wife has lived in Paris, we go back frequently, and it became a ritual to call Jeanne up and go to dinner, often in her neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement.
Jeanne liked restaurants that knew her, that would not make a fuss. She couldn’t care less about some of the perks of stardom — she would call us herself at our hotel, which made an impression on the desk clerks — but she was far from indifferent to them. Her philosophy, she once told me, was “Don’t run away from fame, use it.”
Though she would do so if called upon, Jeanne did not especially want to talk about the past. Like many artists, it was invariably her next project that interested her the most.
“Most people feel acting is pretending, but for me it is not that,” she’d said to me in the Post interview. “It is to feel to the core of your body and mind so you can express yourself, open yourself up and be truer than life.”
Once, visiting her in her apartment in a small but beautiful courtyard building, I commented on the enormous tubs of stunning red roses. Oh, she said with a bemused shrug, they came regularly from a director who was importuning her to take a part. Just the way things are when you are who she was.
Jeanne had an impish sense of humor and an enormous sense of fun, sometimes in an almost childlike way. During a Christmas season visit, she offered us slices of galette des roi ,a cake with a small crown hidden inside that is a French Epiphany tradition. I can still see her expression of delight when it appeared in my wife’s slice.
What invariably struck me about Jeanne was her enormous curiosity, her formidable intelligence and her passion for knowledge. Everything from brain science to Buddhism interested her deeply, she rarely said anything expected, and conversation with her was always intense and involving no matter what the subject. Jeanne was passionate about more than acting, and even casual observations like “generosity is a talent” had heft when she said them.
For the past few years, the phone calls and emails went unanswered and the regular visits ended, as did Jeanne’s film appearances. Mutual friends whispered she was not well, but I had no way of knowing for sure. I dreaded the worst.
Jeanne’s sense of herself as on a quest, as a person who had an exceptional path before her, had always been strong. Of all the stories she told me, the one I remember most was a particularly pointed one from childhood.
At a young age, Jeanne said, she’d gone to the Paris police station near her home and told the officer on duty that there must be some mistake, the uninteresting people she was living with could not possibly be her parents. Those parents were understandably incensed when they came to pick her up, but Jeanne couldn’t have cared less. She was an artist on a mission, and from then to now that’s all that mattered.
JEANNE MOREAU stars as Florence Carala in director Louis Malle’s 1958 film “Elevator to the Gallows.”