Film star with ‘the temperament of a cannonball’

Paris Letter: France mourns Jeanne Moreau, an actor of fierce intelligence

Jeanne Moreau in New York, March, 2003. Photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Jeanne Moreau in New York, March, 2003. Photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

 

Jeanne Moreau, who passed away in the early hours of July 31st at the age of 89, was arguably the greatest French woman actor ever. Her life and oeuvre have been the focus of acres of newsprint and hours of radio commentary this week. Her films are shown on French television nightly.

Moreau decided she wanted to be an actor when she was 16. Her father, a café owner in the Pigalle area of Paris, threw her out when she refused to give up acting. Her mother, Kathleen Sarah Buckley, an English dancehall girl of Irish origin, had returned to Lancashire with Moreau’s younger sister.

The prostitutes of Pigalle became her surrogate family, Moreau told Le Monde in 2012. Her difficult childhood forged a powerful character, combining monumental intelligence and talent with a certain froideur. When the writer Maurice Clavel saw Moreau onstage in 1947, he said she had “the temperament of a cannonball”.

Moreau was initially told she would never succeed in cinema because of her asymmetrical face and the circles under her eyes. She endured hours of make-up to conform to 1950s standards of beauty.

But New Wave directors such as Louis Malle and François Truffaut, who sought to portray women and society in a different way, made Moreau a star. They loved her atypical looks and unconventional manner. 

“She could be almost ugly, and then 10 seconds later she would turn her face and would be incredibly attractive,” Malle said. Moreau never went out of fashion and worked until the last years of her life, completing more than 120 films.

Moreau’s lovers included many of the actors and directors she worked with. One of them, Orson Welles, called her “the best actress in the world”.

At her father’s insistence, Moreau married Jean-Louis Richard, an actor, the day before she gave birth to her only child, a son named Jérôme, in 1947. Two hours after the birth, she telephoned the director she was working with and said she was ready to return to work. “I know it shocks a lot of women, but I’m not maternal,” she told Le Figaro in 2012.

Moreau castigated women who said she was not a feminist “because I love men and want to keep my femininity”. Despite her lack of affinity for the feminist movement, she considered that the majority of women were oppressed, and joined Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Catherine Deneuve and 339 other celebrities in signing the 1971 “I have aborted” petition demanding the right to legal abortion.

Memorable interview

My favourite Moreau films are: Lift for the Scaffold, the 1958 Malle classic that made her famous, with its haunting score by Miles Davis; Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962); Jacques Démy’s Bay of Angels (1963); and Josée Dayan’s Cet Amour-là (2001). These were among 11 Moreau films shown at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in November 2002.

I interviewed Moreau before she travelled to Dublin for the IFI festival, in the apartment near the Arc de Triomphe where she died this week. For me, it was one of the most memorable interviews ever.

My right hand was in plaster as the result of a cycling accident. Moreau seemed impressed with my clumsy attempts to take notes. Though she was approaching her 75th birthday, she was dressed like a teenager in fringed boots, blue jeans and a jumper. The plush toys lining the bookshelf in her sitting room belied her image as a man-eating femme fatale.

The interview was a contest of wills, a challenging but enjoyable joust. Moreau had just completed Cet Amour-là, about the 16-year love affair between her late friend Marguerite Duras and a much younger gay man called Yann Andréa. When I called it an unlikely romance, Moreau excoriated me for having “an absolutely conventional image of the relationship between men and women”.

A few days later, I received an email from one of the organisers of the Dublin festival, telling me that Moreau “has spent the last two days here making grown men cry”.

In an article he wrote for the New York Times magazine this summer, Moreau’s second husband, the US director William Friedkin, said their brief marriage failed because of cultural differences. She nonetheless gave him an enduring love for Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Moreau counted most of the great writers of the past century among her friends. Writing was, she said, “the only activity I place higher than acting”. At her home in the hills above St Tropez, Moreau read Proust aloud every night to Friedkin, in her extraordinary, mysterious, magical voice.

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