Jeanne Moreau: very French, half-English and a little Irish

The throaty actor – a walking embodiment of French sophistication – has died aged 89

There are so many plausible answers to the question: when did the 1960s really begin? For a certain class of cineaste, the answer is early 1962.

In January of that year, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim – an exuberant love triangle with Jeanne Moreau at one vertex – pushed the French New Wave above ground. After seeing the film in New York City, David Newman and Robert Benton sat down and wrote Bonnie and Clyde (the script of which originally included a sexual threesome).

A few years later, when Mike Nichols was casting The Graduate, he seriously considered Moreau for the role of Mrs Robinson. By then, the throaty, charismatic actor, who has died in Paris at the age of 89, had become a walking embodiment of French sophistication.

Brigitte Bardot was a little too mainstream. Catherine Deneuve was that bit less threatening. Always the most important person on the screen, Moreau – though at home to comedy – traded in a Gallic seriousness that no trivial Anglophone could match.

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Yet she was half-English and just a little Irish. Moreau’s mother, a dancer of some note and of Irish descent, was raised in the distinctly unglamorous Lancashire town of Oldham. She married Jeanne’s father, a restaurateur, and moved to the vicinity of Vichy. The future star caught the acting bug after seeing a production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and made her way to the Conservatoire de Paris.

She had a busy career before Jules et Jim pushed her towards an elevated level of celebrity. Moreau, a regular presence in the Comedie Française, became a titan of French theatre in the 1950s. She was terrific as one of two scheming lovers in Louis Malle’s 1958 noir Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.

Her image on the sleeve of Miles Davis’s soundtrack LP to that film secured her a permanent place in jazz iconography. A year later Malle cast her opposite Alain Cuny in his groundbreaking erotic drama Les Amants. The film’s screening in an Ohio cinema led to a prosecution for obscenity that was later overturned in the US Supreme Court. One could hardly ask for more satisfactory publicity.

The buzz these films generated allowed Moreau – an unlikely, oblique sort of sex symbol – to work with world cinema’s greatest directors in the decade that followed. Her unknowable quality suited Michelangelo Antonioni very nicely, and the Italian director exploited it in his puzzle picture La Notte (1961).

Luis Bunuel, another film-maker at home to ambiguity, cast her in the title role of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Among her best roles in the 1960s was a relatively small one: complementing Orson Welles's Falstaff as a richly nuanced Doll Tearsheet in the immortal Chimes at Midnight.

Moreau continued to work furiously. But the industry must take the rap for not finding enough roles worthy of her talent and charisma. In 1992 she won a César Award for Laurent Heynemann's The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea.

If reports are to be believed, she had an enviably colourful love life. A long marriage to actor Jean-Louis Richard was succeeded by relationships with Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Miles Davis. The bisexual director Tony Richardson left his wife Vanessa Redgrave for Moreau, but that relationship did not lead to marriage.

She was, in the late 1970s, married to the US director William Friedkin, who, with The French Connection, inveigled New Wave techniques into American cinema. That neat elision ended in 1979.

Also an effective singer, Moreau can be credited with allowing assertive women to flourish in an industry that was still not much at home to feminism.

There can be no greater tribute to an actor than to say she radiated an aura that nobody else could hope to duplicate. There is no “Moreau type”. Any performer who sought to emulate her was doomed to failure.

President Emmanuel Macron described her as “a legend of cinema and theatre” and “an actress engaged in the whirlwind of life with an absolute freedom.” Pierre Lescure, President of the Cannes Film Festival, said: “She was strong and she didn’t like to see people pour their hearts out. Sorry, Jeanne, but this is beyond us. We are weeping.”

Jeanne Moreau is survived by her son, the actor Jerome Richard.