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Jeanne Moreau: 1928-2017

Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest film actresses of all time, had an English mother and a French father. An avid reader who identified most with the rebellious Antigone, Moreau defied her disapproving father to train at the Comédie-Française, where she soon became pregnant by a fellow student named Jean-Louis Richard. They were forced to marry, but she left her child to be looked after by her mother-in-law and divorced Richard after two years.

Richard stayed in her orbit, as nearly all Moreau’s lovers did, and he even directed her in a few films during her 1960s star period. “For me it’s not possible to forget, and I don’t understand people who, when the love is ended, can bury the other person in hatred or oblivion,” Moreau said. “For me, a man I have loved becomes a kind of brother.” She once said she wanted to end her life in a large house with all of the men she had ever loved, but in another mood she offered, “Love is like the soup … the first spoonfuls are too hot, the last ones too cold.”

In the 1950s she worked in ordinary films during the day solely to make money and worked in the theater at night. Everything changed for Moreau when she fell in love with director Louis Malle during “Elevator to the Gallows”(1957), the film that made her a movie star. She lived with Malle during “The Lovers” (1958), which caused a scandal because of its sexual frankness. “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,” Moreau said. “I could not play them without betraying him.”

You can see her pores, her striated lips, and her full desiring nature in “Elevator to the Gallows,” where her every “je t’aime” or “mon amour” is demanding, arousing, vampiric. When she wanders through traffic in “Elevator to the Gallows,” the cars whipping right in front of and behind her, Moreau projects a radical kind of self-absorption, a moment-by-moment heavy immersion in her feelings that is romantic, self-consuming, destroying, yet extremely attractive. In “The Lovers,” Moreau’s character feels no qualms at all about leaving her comfortable bourgeois life and her small child at sunrise to go off with a man who has loved her for just one night. The ruthlessness of that decision, the lack of any sentimental or duty-bound attachment, is still shocking. 

Moreau liked to do one take only and never more than two during her French New Wave days, when many of her most famous films were shot for almost no money. Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962) couldn’t afford direct sound, and Moreau wasn’t paid anything following the grueling shoot for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte” (1961) after its producer went bankrupt. Moreau worked for the love of it and the art of it for the films that would make her reputation, and she took paycheck jobs in more commercial/international features in between. 

Her first films as a star were awash in jazz music: Miles Davis improvised a score for “Elevator to the Gallows” and Thelonious Monk was heard on the soundtrack for “Dangerous Liaisons” (1959), where Moreau projects a deadly sort of impatience and resembles a long and elegant ash of a cigarette just waiting to drop to the floor. (She recorded albums of chansons herself in the 1960s and 1970s, singing in a disarmingly sweet, girlish tone before a lifetime of smoking lowered her voice to a raspy bass.) 

Moreau took to drinking wine in the morning to get close to the woman she was playing in the Peter Brook film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ “Moderato Cantabile” (1960), arguably her greatest—or most exposed—performance. Moreau wears blondish hair in that film as an isolated wife and mother stifled by her bourgeois life and obsessing over another woman’s murder. She moves around a small seaside town like someone walking a tightrope with no net underneath. It’s as if there’s no state of mind Moreau won’t explore in “Moderato Cantabile,” and her emotional registers are very unusual in that movie, even eccentric. Off the set, her co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo got into a car accident with Moreau’s young son Jerome, who was in a coma for most of the rest of the shoot, and surely this trauma added to and even caused the brimming openness and next-level potency of her work in this disturbing Duras material.

Moreau reaches the crest of her power on screen in “Moderato Cantabile” at 39 minutes and 46 seconds in, as the camera holds on her staring, unblinking face until at 40:08 she shuts her eyes hard and falls away from the frame. I’m not sure what this 22 seconds on Moreau’s face is supposed to mean. I only know that it is so cutting that you will never forget her face here once you have seen it.

Moreau makes this Duras story seem so real and so enveloping when it could easily seem artificial, especially when she gets quietly but deeply drunk at a dinner party with her husband and then retreats upstairs to her child’s room and rolls on the floor. When her husband asks what he should tell the guests, she says, “Tell them I’m going mad.” And she does do that in the final scene, where her character lets out a scream as if she herself is being murdered, like the cry of a wolf in a trap being ripped in two. Moreau reaches a level of intensity in “Moderato Cantabile” that very few actors have matched before or since. 

Antonioni wanted Moreau for “La Notte” because he liked the way she walked, and Luis Bunuel was similarly stirred by her walk in “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964). “When she walks, her foot trembles just a bit on its high heel, suggesting a certain tension and instability,” Bunuel observed. She is good-humored in the Bunuel movie but no-nonsense, with a glare of reproach that could kill. All of Moreau’s directors of the 1960s shamelessly fetishized her brooding subjectivity and her justified self-enchantment, her sheer smoldering presence.

Of all her director-lovers, it is Orson Welles who sees her the clearest and glorifies her the most in “The Immortal Story” (1968), where Moreau plays a tired prostitute who transforms herself during a night of love. When she is asked by her young lover, “How old are you? Are you 17?” Moreau takes a moment and then says, “Yes,” and she makes a sea change all at once, becoming 17 years old again visually and even emotionally just because she says she is. 

Moreau was never more attractive or in charge or dangerous as in her most iconic role: the bohemian Catherine in Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” with her bangs and her blithe smile. Moreau’s Catherine is a woman making up the rules as she goes along and bending them and then smashing them because she feels as a female of the species that the game of love and life is rigged against her. “Moreau is always searching for love, and she leaves victims along the roadside,” said Marcello Mastroianni, who fell for her during the “La Notte” shoot, where she was just as depressed and shut down as her character. She offers the camera half-moods in “La Notte,” half-thoughts, experiments, like a musician deconstructing a melody.

In Jacques Demy’s “Bay of Angels” (1963), Moreau plays a platinum blonde ruled by her devotion to roulette, and she makes this gambling addiction seem deeply attractive, hyper-conscious, and quasi-religious, a deeper form of engagement with life and with fantasy. She fluffs her nearly white blonde hair a lot in that movie and presents herself as self-consciously as possible, as if she is intensely aware of each moment as it slips away from her while walking on little tiptoes in her high heels and wiggling in her black-and-white Pierre Cardin dresses. Moreau seems purely sensual in “Bay of Angels,” but with cerebral quotation marks around her every sensual impulse. In all of her work, Moreau is like a Virginia Woolf narrator crying, “Wait!” to each second of her life.  

Most of Moreau’s major 1960s films are basically plotless. They run on a mood, a theme, an idea, and her characters always break the rules. Moreau rebels and goes with her heart on screen, with her loves, with her instincts, and this made her an enormously romantic and glamorous figure in her time, and rather lonely, finally. She needed to breathe with a film and become one with it, and she would go to any lengths to do so. And she would do anything to protect her movies, threatening the meddling producers of Joseph Losey’s “Eve” with a large knife. “If you come further, I’ll open you up like a purse!” Moreau told them, but she couldn’t save the film from being ruinously cut.

She pouts a lot in “Eve” and takes her love affair with herself to new extremes in Losey’s entranced long takes, where he lets her create her jazzy, wayward behavior with minimal interference. Moreau is somehow un-self-consciously self-conscious in "Eve," radically spontaneous and frightening, like some strange mixture of Brigitte Bardot and Bette Davis at her most sadistic, with some drunken Charlie Chaplin thrown in. In Tony Richardson’s “Mademoiselle” (1966), based on a Jean Genet source, Moreau’s eyes burn darkly as she plays a vicious and sick schoolteacher, a kind of precursor to Isabelle Huppert in “The Piano Teacher” (2001), a woman who sets fires and destroys things just for the kick of it until her sadism gives way to masochism in the hands of a hunky Italian logger. 

She directed herself in “Lumiere” (1976), but this seemed masturbatory after her major love affairs with the gaze of other directors. Around this time Moreau accepted a marriage proposal from director William Friedkin. She later said, “It was the most passionate relationship of my life, and you know I have had many,” but she found it hard to just be a Hollywood wife and soon fled back to France. Moreau narrated her second film as a director, “L’ adolescente” (1979), a fresh, original, and textured coming of age story that is permeated with sexual desire (it went largely unnoticed). 

Moreau gave ten major film performances in ten years from 1958 to 1968: “Elevator to the Gallows,” “The Lovers,” “Moderato Cantabile,” “La Notte,” “Jules and Jim,” “Eve,” “Bay of Angels,” “Diary of a Chambermaid,” “Mademoiselle,” “The Immortal Story.” After that she mainly did bits and pieces here and there, as in her baleful Lysiane in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s very gay “Querelle” (1982), where she clutched at men with her tiny, jeweled hands, or her unhappy wife in Losey’s “The Trout” (1982), both of whom are cast-off, rejected women. And then there was a long string of films where she was an icon without a role to play.

There were exceptions to that sometimes. Moreau enjoyed herself as a vulgar, slangy crook in “The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea” (1991), and she narrated the events of a film of Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover” (1992) in her speculative, cigarette-darkened voice. Adventurous and attuned to first-rate directors, she played roles in films for Wim Wenders and Theo Angelopoulos, sustaining the very demanding single takes in extreme long shot in Angelopoulos’ “The Suspended Step of the Stork” (1991) and somehow managing to dominate them with her moment-by-moment sense of drama and excitement. Moreau played the relentlessly critical mother to Gerard Depardieu’s “Balzac” (1999) on television, and she played Marguerite Duras herself in “Cet-amour-là” (2001), which was about the period when Duras had an affair with a much younger man.

I met Moreau in 2001 after interviewing her about an award she was getting from the Alliance Française in New York. We spoke on the phone first about films and amour, and then I got to talk to her in the ballroom at the Pierre Hotel, which has mirrored walls. She was diminutive but commanding, sweeping into the space with her face unsettled and uncommitted. We were introduced and we talked about Jacques Demy, and then we were joined by others. While we were all talking, Moreau turned around and looked deeply into the mirrors on the wall, primping for quite a while without any shame. It was a real Moreau Moment, a frank focus on Self, and it was glamorous but it was also a little lonely, for that is the price she paid to be most fully herself.

There were some further modest film vehicles after that like “One Day You’ll Understand” (2008) and “A Lady in Paris” (2012), where her character is so unhappy that her assistant wonders if she shouldn’t throw herself out a window. “I love my body too much to smash it on the pavement!” the elderly Moreau cried. As she got thinner with age, Moreau started to emphasize her pouting mouth in a defiant, almost grotesque way. And why not?

Moreau had more than her share of fun and pleasure in life and work, but she also had more than her share of despair when stormy moods descended and she had to shut the door and the shutters and take to her bed. Her dark raincloud eyes said that nothing would help and nothing could be helped until her rare smile broke though like a merciful, hard-won shaft of sunlight. Moreau was the key film actress of her time, a thinking man’s cinephile sexpot, a role model for liberated women, and so much more than that. The key to her work and her achievement lies in the playful way that she ended her interview with me: “I live for the now … and then.” 

Interview with Jeanne Moreau, November, 2001

As the recipient of a lifetime achievement award, does it make you reflect on your career as a whole?

Not at all. I’m very busy. Usually a lifetime achievement award is given to someone who isn’t working anymore. Louis Malle got it in 1992, and he was still working. Also Quincy Jones, Catherine Deneuve, Jessye Norman. The fact that it’s given to me in New York and that it has to do with the cross-cultural understanding between France and the United States, that has a profound meaning for me. It’s always rewarding to have people give you something, because one has doubts. When you work, when you create, one feels responsible for one’s work. At least it gives you confidence. Confidence doesn’t stay all the time.

You’ve always seemed to have a great confidence in yourself and I think that this confidence has also inspired many people watching you. You’re saying that this confidence sometimes falters?

Of course. I’ve always had confidence in my fate. I feel really protected in a way. It’s God’s gift and I’ve received it, I’ve worked with it. Acting is a way of life for me, it’s not a career. It’s a way of doing the best I can with the time that is allowed to me on this earth. While you work, you go through the procedure that one might call the creation, when you’re working on a film as an actress or a director, on stage. While you work, you have doubts, and that is essential. I know enough about life to know that there are ups and downs. People think that ‘up’ is the best thing in the world. Yes, it is, but it can be as dangerous as ‘down.’ You have to take them equally, calmly, then reflect.

I wanted to ask you about “Bay of Angels” (1963), one of my favorite of your films.

I’m so happy! It’s a film I love extremely. 

What was Jacques Demy like to work with?

He was adorable. Demy was very light yet very demanding. He wrote the script, of course, and he had a very, very keen insight about the character, about the ambiguity of this woman and this boy. Demy didn’t explain anything, which is something I enjoy very much. Just learning my lines, I could feel that this woman, Jackie, had a certain way of breathing in order to speak the way she did. Demy had a very special pace. It was through the breathing that I got to the character. He shot the film in black and white, and he had very precise ideas about the way she was dressed. Pierre Cardin did all my costumes. Through the costumes and through the breathing of the lines, I got everything. The rhythm of the shooting, the atmosphere … that’s how I worked. I don’t like psychological explanation.

In the Joseph Losey film “Eve” (1962), there are long, silent scenes where the camera is just following you around. Were the movements partially improvised, or were they given to you?

Losey gave me total freedom. We worked long before we started shooting. We knew where this woman came from, we knew where she was born, what happened to her…

In essence, you created her together?

Exactly. With great directors, you don’t speak about the character when you shoot. It was the same with Orson Welles. The Karen Blixen story we made, “The Immortal Story” (1968), it was only an hour, and it played in New York for months and years.

What about “The Deep,” another film you made with Welles that wasn’t finished? Can it ever be shown?

“The Deep” has never been released. I don’t know where the copy is.

Has there ever been a director who just said, ‘I want you to move your head to the left,’ and so forth?

Oh, well, actually, Orson did that in “The Deep,” for example, but we were having fun. He would come in the morning with bits and pieces of paper, and he would say, ‘These are new things, but don’t worry about them. Sit near the camera.’ He was quite big at that time and we were on a ship, so he wasn’t running around. That’s why the shots were very low. So the camera was placed and he would sit by the camera and he would tell me, ‘Do this, make that movement, cry, look at me, stop breathing,’ incredible things, we had fun. I loved it, I loved that kind of direction because it was Orson, it was him. Luis Bunuel was like that too. I didn’t mind these people using me. I loved it. Because, using me, allowing them to use me, I knew I was using them at the same time. The relationship between an actress and a director is a relationship of seduction. It’s a double relationship.

Making love to the director?

Not making love, no. Don’t mix making love with that! Making love is something deep, profound, mysterious. It’s another alchemy. But the creative process is very intimate. It goes beyond everything.

How have you managed to keep most of your lovers as friends? How do you avoid the poison that can come at the end of a relationship?

Maybe it is because of the quality of the relationship, you know. I couldn’t explain that. There should be respect on both sides. There should be gratefulness. Maybe because the men and myself, we know that things don’t last. Life, you know? It’s marvelous to be able to travel for a while with somebody, when nothing ugly interferes.

To truly love someone, what do you think is required?

Well, just generosity. And gratitude. The worst enemy in love is to be possessive. To think that things ought to last. Usually, to begin with, it’s an attraction, it’s passionate, and it’s violently … there’s a sort of … everything gets all mixed up. Sex, and the heart, and the mind. It’s a painful period. If you resent the fact that it doesn’t last, you think the other one is responsible. That’s where it becomes ugly. But you know, if you have a certain knowledge … people say that one should speak to each other. No! People shouldn’t speak too much. Some people speak too much. Words can destroy things ... beyond words, if you know what I mean. As long as you don’t feel that the other one is responsible, as long as you don’t feel guilty, you can keep the relationship. Love is like a flower blooming and then it fades. That doesn’t mean that you can’t keep the same roots.

I love that you have said that you’d like to end your days in a big house with all the men you’ve ever loved. Who would be there?

Ah, maybe nowadays I wouldn’t do that. Nowadays I wouldn’t because I love to be alone. I love visitors. 

What do you think is the proper role of art in our times?

Only in a democracy can artists express themselves. You know, you don’t have to be of service to some ideology. Nobody is there to say it is forbidden. Art is freedom. And it’s beauty. And we need it. Some people pray. One can pray, but I love to cook. If you come to Paris, I will cook for you. I love to cook. When I do something properly, when I peel the vegetables, I’m praying. One must never forget that thoughts are more dangerous than words. The troubles that are happening in the world were born from one thought. We should be very, very careful about one’s own thoughts. What is the seed? The seed is the thought. First there are the thoughts, then the words, then the actions. You have to be careful of your thoughts.

Would you ever write your memoirs? Or is it better to leave it to other people?

No, I wouldn’t leave it to other people. I wouldn’t write memoirs. No. I may write a book. Yes, I may. When the time comes, yes.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

[Moreau makes a high whistling sound that signals that she is stumped for a moment, and then she takes a pause.] I cannot answer. I react when people say there is no afterlife, when they’re so sure of themselves, and I react when people say that there is an afterlife, when they are so sure of themselves. I don’t know. Life is mysterious. I am very keen about what I’m thinking and what I’m doing. I live for the now … and then.

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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