In 1962, an elegant young Frenchwoman and her lover sat down with her German husband and his French best friend to show off the new song they’d been working on. Although the song, which narrated a man’s on-again off-again affair with a beautiful and elusive woman, was written from a clearly male perspective, it was the woman who sang it with her lover providing musical accompaniment on his guitar; as the camera closed in on her face, captured the smiles that occasionally broke through her look of serious concentration and noted the way her piercing brown eyes glanced from her lover’s face to her listeners’, it became obvious to the viewer that she was really singing about herself – vocalizing the attraction all three men felt towards her with amused but appreciative empathy, and through it achieving an ephemeral state of intimate half-open communion.
The scene described above is from François Truffaut’s landmark ménage-á-trois dramedy Jules And Jim and the actress at the centre of it is Jeanne Moreau, who left us on the 31st of July 2017 at the grand age of 89. Although she had already achieved international recognition by that point in addition to unanimous acclaim in her native France, Moreau’s performance as the free-spirited Catherine in Jules And Jim quickly became the role that would forever spring to mind at the mere mention of her name, so perfectly does it encapsulate everything that made her so uniquely appealing. Like the titular protagonists, the world fell in love with her cool wit and sophistication, and she responded by defying all of its attempts to pigeonhole her into some kind of feminine ideal. In auteurist projects as in popular entertainment, she remained her own woman through and through.
This independence often manifested itself in a subtly internal style of play in which thoughts, emotions and desires always bubbled clearly on the surface but resisted our efforts at analysing or appropriating them as our own. Her finely chiselled features, with that sharp jawbone, those penetratingly dark eyes and a pout that could morph into the world’s most radiant laugh, bore a constant testimony to her characters’ inner battles and her genius lay in her ability to translate their ever-shifting outcomes without giving too much of herself away.
It was that unique gift that enabled Moreau to transcend gender stereotypes and arthouse conventions, turning her very best roles – the aforementioned Catherine, the crusading titular protagonist in Diary Of A Chambermaid, the sadistic, sexually-repressed schoolteacher in Mademoiselle and impulsive gambling addict Jackie in Bay Of Angels – into complicated expressions of humanity’s multiple facets. Yet in almost all her performances, there was a common thread of deep-seated pain that connected these women from across different lives; it was in the look of pure resignation carved on the statuesque face of La Notte’s Lidia, in the desperately husky “I love-yous” whispered by Florence Carala to her lover in the opening scene of Elevator To The Gallows, and in the measured stillness of ex-convict Jeanne Pirolle during her last day of carnal pleasure in the original Going Places. Within each of these women’s inexorable marches to doom, she infused a sense of lived-in knowledge that gave their words and actions meaning no screenwriter could create. Their humanity seemed to come entirely from her being, always palpable but just out of reach, impossible to easily summarize or explain away.
Jeanne Moreau’s on-screen choices matched her off-screen life in its freedom, passion and personal integrity. While never one to donate herself to a political movement, she played a significant part in post-war French feminism as both an artist and a citizen; in addition to being herself renowned for her many male conquests, she broke important ground in Louis Malle’s 1958 romantic adultery drama The Lovers by suggesting mainstream cinema’s first on-screen orgasm since Hedy Lamarr in 1933’s Ecstasy, as well as receiving the first cunnilingus in a non-pornographic film. Beyond its cultural impact, her participation in the film also contributed to a gradual relaxation of American obscenity laws when Justice Potter Stewart overturned the state of Ohio’s ban on the film on grounds of obscenity with his now-famous ruling “I know it when I see it.” In François Truffaut’s 1968 Hitchcock homage The Bride Wore Black, her determined vengefulness helped turn the methodical execution of a five-man boys’ club into a something approaching a self-critique of the kind of control fantasies and sexist tropes prevalent in both Hitchcock and Truffaut’s respective filmographies. And in 1971, she was among the many who, by signing Simone De Beauvoir’s controversial “Manifesto of the 343” and openly admitting to having had an abortion, dared to expose themselves to potential criminal charges and paved the way for the legalization of abortion in France.
As one of French cinema’s most famous and respected names, Jeanne Moreau has enjoyed a cinematic career the richness, diversity and historic importance of which most actors can only dream of. Aside from having worked with the likes of Truffaut, Malle, Welles, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Demy, Losey, Wenders and Buñuel, she also directed three feature films, released six albums as a singer and co-wrote Holocaust survivor Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s 2003 semi-autobiographical drama The Birch-Tree Meadow. She leaves behind her a legacy as close to that of a poet as any actor has ever created, in which truth and meaning are brought to light through subtle games of dissimulation and revelation, always keeping the audience guessing until the very last fade-out.