Jeanne Moreau, one of the iconic French actresses of her generation, has died today in Paris. She had the fortune to be at the peak of her powers during one of the great ages of cinema. She acted in films made by some of the best post-war directors: Antonioni, Welles, Truffaut, Bunuel, Fassbinder. I want to write about three of her films (all shot in black and white): Lift to the Scaffold (1958, Louis Malle), Jules et Jim (1962, François Truffaut) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964, Luis Bunuel).
In Jules et Jim she has the archaic smile seen on the lips of an excavated sculpture in the Adriatic. Moreau plays Catherine as spirited and free, a plausible, crazy, abusive and passionate dynamo. The title of Jules et Jim mentions only the two male protagonists who fall in love with Catherine, but it is she who is the strong character, the irresistible force of this film about the intensity and fluidity of life. Defiant, self-assured, vital, dynamic, poignant, erotic, Catherine is the pioneer of the new moral ethic inventing love anew with playful games and complexity. “She always asked for God’s forgiveness in advance and was confident she’d get it’”. Moreau with her husky voice, sultry glamour and expressive face haunted a generation of film watchers. Her downturned mouth, in a combination of audacity and prudence, both promised and spurned. The real life character she depicted, a German journalist called Helen Grund, watched the film as an old woman and wrote to Truffaut: “But what disposition in you, what affinity could have enlightened you to the point of recreating – in spite of the odd inevitable deviation and compromise – the essential qualities of our intimate emotions? On that level, I am your only authentic judge because the other two witnesses are no longer here to tell you ‘yes’”. It is my favourite film and I have written about it before: here.
Moreau plays Céleste, a domestic, in Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid. Arriving in a 1930s French bourgeois house of grotesques, delinquents and sexual perverts, Moreau is all imperious languor, a controlled disquieting presence who uses her sexuality to negotiate and confront. When Céleste seduces the handyman, played by George Géret, in a cool matter of fact way after she suspects him of raping and murdering a young child, so as to induce a post-coital confession, Moreau creates an astonishing scene of power and ambiguity.
In Lift to the Scaffold, a darkly atmospheric thriller, Moreau plays a woman plotting with her lover to kill her husband. After the lover commits the murder and makes it looks like suicide he gets stuck in a lift (after the power is cut for the weekend). Moreau, not knowing what has happened to him, walks the streets of the Champs Elysées in the night rain. An early New Wave film that spurned make-up, hair stylists and studio lighting this is a scene in which the hand held camera follows Moreau’s face lit only by the light from Parisian cafés and shops. She is visiting her haunts looking for her lover while fearing that he has deserted her. In this mesmerising sequence the feline Moreau, with mere walk and gaze, conveys all the complexities of emotion. Miles Davis (who had just released Birth of the Cool) was persuaded by the writer Boris Vian to record the soundtrack to the film. Davis’s rendition of Nuit sur les Champs Elysées is the modish and lonely trumpet sound that accompanies this desperate flaneuse. The recording took place in a bar (Moreau, Malle and Davis were drinking together) on 4th December 1957 where the musicians improvised as the film was projected. This is classic Left Bank post-war tristesse: the soundtrack jazz, the photographers Doisneau and Brassai, the philosophy hedonism.
Moreau was born in Paris in 1928 to a French father and Lancastrian mother (Kathleen Buckley from Oldham). She was very proud of being half English “I can be outrageous as only the English can”. During the war in occupied Paris her mother was arrested and required to report daily to the Gestapo. Some of her school friends attended lessons with yellow stars and then disappeared. Moreau lived in a hotel (where her father worked) which German soldiers used as a brothel. Her parents divorced and her mother returned with Moreau’s sister to England. Film buffs would be startled on occasions to see the great Jeanne Moreau walking from Peterborough train station to visit her family. She had love affairs with Malle, Truffaut and Pierre Cardin, and married the film maker William Freidkin, and was friends with Cocteau, Henry Miller and Marguerite Duras. She may have been a Lancastrian but Jeanne Moreau was the essence of French cinema, and French life.
She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the wind on a hilltop. But that was against the regulations.