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Thursday, 3 August 2017

Vale Jeanne Moreau (3) - John Conomos tells the story of the star's life and work (reprinted from Facebook)

R.I.P Jeanne Moreau (1928 – 2017). One of the greatest actresses of our time has recently passed away, Jeanne Moreau, whose entrancing downcast glamour, husky voice and sensuality became iconic to the European art films of the 1960s and indeed was universally recognised as the iconographic embodiment of the French New Wave cinema. Moreau’s sheer dramaturgical intelligence, subtlety and captivating presence shone through her distinguished career and her splendid collaborations with Luis Bunuel, Francoise Truffaut, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni , Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Joseph Losey and many others over a seven decade film and theatre career. She was, for Orson Welles, one of cinema’s ‘king actors’ who regarded cinema as life itself. Central to Moreau’s aphoristic intelligence were wit and penetrating existential awareness of life’s unpredictable beauty, fragility and ontological complexities.

Jules et Jim
She had, simply put, the most dramaturgical complex alluring, femme fatale world-weary beauty about her in the cinema, and in essence, her siren call of an oval face with dark heavy rings around her large laughing eyes and wide expressive mouth, suggested an anti-nostalgic restlessness about the world at large. By the time, Moreau became the central stunning star of Francois Truffaut’s enormous international hit Jules et Jim (1962), who ensares two men in this lyrical exuberant testament to the freedom of the human spirit, it is easy to forget that she was already an established theatre star and quite an experienced film actress. In Truffaut’s film Moreau had displayed an all-consuming worldly intelligence and an infectious sensuality that became two of the most significant traits of the actor’s singularly distinctive iconic star presence in her ensuing one –of –a kind film career from the sixties to later to the eighties and nineties through to the early 2000s.

Moreau’s undiminishing piercing beauty, existential vulnerability and a hugely pronounced questing drive and intelligence to question our own mainstream behavioural and moral orthodoxies, meant she had an elaborate curiosity about life’s a-categorical pleasures, truths and an unbridled capacity to surprise us and our comfort-zone certainties about what we are capable of believing and doing and how to live beyond our daily clichés.

Actor, singer, director, and screenwriter (Moreau directed two features in the late 1970s,  Lumière [1976] and L’Adolescente[1978]  she won many awards during her illustrious career: including the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress for Moderato Cantabile/Seven Days….. Seven Nights (1960), the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress for Viva Maria  (1965) and the Cesar Award for Best Actress for La Veille qui marchait dans la mer/The Old Lady Who Walked in The Sea (1992) and she also won several lifetime awards, including a BAFTA Fellowship in 1996.

Despite her father’s objection to Moreau becoming an actress, she had her theatrical debut in 1947, and by the mid 1950s she became one of the significant actresses of the Comédie-francaise. By 1949 Moreau had started playing small roles in films with numerous outstanding performances in the Fernandel vehicle Meurtres? (Three Sinners, 1950) and several years later alongside Jean Gabin as a gangster’s moll in the Jacques Becker’s classic Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).

Lift to the Scaffold
But it should be remembered that it was Louis Malle who successfully transformed Moreau into an international movie star in his superb film noir debut landmark film Lift to the Scaffold (1958) whereby the director capitalised on the actor’s sophisticated intelligence, her perennial air of languor and disquiet in creating such a ruthless married schemer who has a murderous plan to become rich for herself and her equally scheming lover. 
Moreau and Miles Davis
The plan itself, in keeping with the film noir conventions of the film itself, goes horribly awry under the symbolic shadow of the gallows. It was in this film that Moreau herself had a romantic attachment with Miles Davis, the jazz musician, who provides one of the most successful haunting jazz scores ( totally improvised ) in cinema. Moreau, to put it simply, became most prolific in the sixties whose luminous presence lit up the emerging French New Wave generation of the proceeding decade. Her stellar participation in this context of post-war French cinema was of virtually ‘Mount Rushmore” monumental importance.

Nathalie Granger
Throughout her distinguished life, Moreau established critical friendships with prominent authors Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, and Marguerite Duras. She participated in Duras 1972 film Nathalie Granger and in her book Outside : Selected Writings [1986] Duras has a piece on the actress.

In 1949 she married Jean–Louis Richard, separated two years later and divorced him in 1964 . In 1966 Moreau married Theodoros Roubanis , the Greek actor/playboy and eleven years later she married William Friedkin . That marriage lasted two years. Moreau had a son Jerome with Jean-Louis Richard. Also, it should be noted, that Tony Richardson, the English director, left Vanessa Redgraves for Moreau in 1967 but they never actually married. Moreau had affairs with Malle, Truffaut, Lee Marvin and Pierre Cardin as well.

Moreau herself was born in Paris, her father Anatole-Desire Moreau (died 1975) was a French restaurateur and her mother was actually English, Katherine (nee Buckley) , a dancer at the Folies Bergère ( died 1990). By the age of sixteen Moreau had lost interest in school and after attending a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone she found her calling as an actress. Her parents separated whilst she was a student later at the Conservatoire de Paris and after 24 difficult years her mother returned to England with Moreau’s sister Michelle.

La Notte
It was in 1961 that Antonioni used Moreau with such exquisite dramatic subtlety in his eloquently haunting minimalist masterpiece of doom La Notte/The Night – one of my favourite Antonioni works - by focusing on the actress’ major qualities of lingering sadness and ennui. She and her husband, who is a fashionable author, visit their sick friend in hospital and afterwards attend a rather chic, cool party where everyone there despite their ‘high society /sweet life masks are located on an existential edge, totally disaffected with themselves and their lives. An existential nausea pervades the entire nocturnal twilight mise-en scene of this masterwork. Moreau’s role is not one of her often then dark erotic temptress roles. That role goes to Monica Vitti, who endeavours to seduce Moreau’s husband in the film. Moreau’s subtle charismatic performance shines in Antonioni’s film despite the fact that it was not the central key role in the film itself.

Bay of Angels
In Jacques Demy’s dazzling hypnotic tale of love at the roulette wheel The Bay of Angels (1963) Moreau performs one of her most memorable roles as Jackie, a compulsive gambler, who falls in love with a bank clerk (Claude Mann) while she is on holidays in Nice. Moreau’s elemental presence on the screen was based on a powerful combination of dark and light and an uncommon expressive intensity in her glorious acting. She had that rare kinetic and gestural ability to convey to her captivated audiences more than just what her extraordinarily expressive face, body and gait could effortlessly signal to us. It seemed that from the 1960s to the 1980s Moreau was invariably placed in on-screen ménages a trois. Iconically, Moreau represented the quintessence of French femininity; symbolising the New Woman of post-war European modernity. As the critic Carrie Rickey puts it quite appropriately: “Jeanne Moreau was to French cinema as Manet’s “Olympia” was to French painting – the personification of the gait , glance and gestures of modern life.”

Moreau’s acting found its highest point perhaps in terms of eroticism and the dark erotic comedy in Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid  (1964) where the actress as the maid Celestine uses her diabolical manipulative sensuality to control everything around her.

Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles, who regarded her as one of the screen’s greatest actors, deftly used Moreau’s cerebral magnetism, sensuality and force in his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) as a magnetic Fraulein Burster and in his great Shakesperean creation Falstaff (1965) Moreau appears as an interesting Doll Tearsheet. For his 1968 television play adaptation of a Karen Blixen story The Immortal Story Welles manages to use Moreau more entirely and successfully than he did with her role in Falstaff.

Clearly, Moreau’s rare candid sensuality and worldly self- assurance were highlighted throughout her various mesmerising performances in the films of Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, Truffaut, Losey, Renoir, Demy, etc., indicating that she was ( without any convenient exaggeration ) the muse to so many of the key auteurs of world cinema.


Moreau was critical of the attitude that glorified cinema as the alpha and omega of human existence. She was against the nostalgic glorification of the New Wave as an end in itself; for this actress had an immense critical scepticism about the mythologising flim flam of cinema in our lives. Life more than anything else, including cinema, was the important thing to value through one’s life journey. Certainly, the arts for this actress, represented freedom and she lived accordingly to this fundamental belief of hers, but what ultimately mattered for her was the realisation that “the life you had is nothing, it's the life you have that’s important.”

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