Alluring actor who was pleased to be outrageous

Obituary: Jeanne Moreau, actor, born January 23rd, 1928; died July 31st, 2017

With her sensual, pouting mouth, her Gauloises-saturated voice, and her combination of sharp intelligence and smouldering sexuality, Jeanne Moreau, who has died aged 89, seemed to many the embodiment of French womanhood.

Although by the early 1950s she was established on stage, Moreau achieved screen stardom only with her 20th film, Louis Malle’s first solo feature, Lift to the Scaffold (1958), as an actor who represented the spirit of emerging feminism. Her status was consolidated in Malle’s The Lovers, released later the same year, and reached a peak as Moreau, queen of the French New Wave, took the role of Catherine, object of the affections of the best friends of the title in François Truffaut ’s Jules and Jim (1962).

According to the critic Derek Malcolm: "Moreau was the perfect choice for Catherine: she gives a performance full of gaiety and charm without conveying an empty-headed bimbo. She makes the watcher understand that this is no ordinary woman whom both men adore. It is possibly the most complete portrait of any feminine character in the entire oeuvre of the New Wave."

Although Moreau seemed the archetypical French woman, she was half English; her mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a Lancashire lass, from Oldham. Kathleen was one of the high-stepping Tiller Girls, and it was while she was performing at the Folies Bergère in Paris that she met Anatole Moreau, a cafe owner. Kathleen became pregnant, they married, and their daughter Jeanne was born in Montmartre.

“I’m very proud of being half English and I think as time passes my best English qualities are more and more visible,” remarked Moreau. “I’m pleased I can be outrageous as only the English can be.” If being outrageous meant being her own woman, expressing her opinions unreservedly and having a number of well-publicised affairs, then she lived up to the epithet.

At first she wanted to be a dancer like her mother, but a visit to the Comédie-Française to see Marie Bell as Phèdre changed all that. "That was passion. Being in the audience I felt, even the first time, that my place wasn't there in the dark. I didn't feel like being the one who just watches. I wasn't born for obscurity. I knew at once I wanted to be an actress. It was not a money or a fame thing but an escape from real life. I lost all interest in school."

When Moreau told her father of her ambition, he called her a prostitute, but her mother supported her, and she entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique at the age of 18. (Jeanne’s father became reconciled to his daughter’s profession only a few years before he died in 1975.)

In her final year at the conservatoire, Moreau was approached by Jean Vilar, who was organising the first Avignon theatre festival, to play Verochka in A Month in the Country. As a result of this performance, she was given a four-year contract at the Comédie-Française. A fellow member of the company was the actor-director-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard, whom she married in 1948, a few months before their son Jérôme was born. Two years later, the couple separated, although Richard subsequently directed her in two films: Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964) and Diane's Body (1969).

After leaving the Comédie-Française in 1952, she rejoined Vilar at the Théâtre National Populaire, playing opposite the matinee idol Gérard Philipe in Le Cid and The Prince of Homburg. She would later co-star with him in Roger Vadim’s 1959 updated film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Other stage triumphs were as the Sphinx in Jean Cocteau's La Machine Infernale, with Jean Marais as Oedipus; Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, directed by Marais; and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Peter Brook. It was in the last of these that she was seen by the 25-year-old tyro film director Malle, who was determined to star her in Lift to the Scaffold.

The film was a vividly photographed, darkly atmospheric thriller in which Moreau glowed as a woman plotting with her lover to kill her husband. “We didn’t hide Jeanne’s face in cosmetics,” Malle explained, “but allowed her to be herself. After years of having make-up artists covering up her looks in a desperate attempt to force her to conform, suddenly she became a real woman.” According to Malle, they had “a great love affair”.

In The Lovers, Moreau was wonderful as the bored provincial wife finding sexual gratification outside marriage. But the nature of the controversial film, with its semi-nude love scenes, was one of the causes of the end of the affair. "Louis could no longer stand to see me as others then saw me, and as only he had seen me until then," Moreau explained. "I knew that if I played the love scenes just as Louis wanted, he would love me as an actress but hate me as a woman. I could not play them without betraying him." However, they remained good friends for the rest of their lives, and Malle directed Moreau in two further films, Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within, 1963) and Viva Maria! (1965), the latter co-starring Brigitte Bardot.

In 1960, Moreau played another bored and frustrated wife in Brook's Moderato Cantabile, written by her friend Marguerite Duras, for which she won the best actress award at the Cannes film festival. She then refused the Jean Simmons role in Spartacus in order to work with Michelangelo Antonioni in La Notte (1961), but "there was no communication between Antonioni and me". Nevertheless, she was effective as a woman facing the emptiness of her life as, in the best sequence, she wanders the streets of Milan for hours.

But it was Truffaut who dispelled the gloom, making Moreau smile again as the skittish Catherine in Jules and Jim. She not only sings Le Tourbillon delightfully, but also brilliantly captures the mood swings of this complex woman. One of the most memorable freewheeling sequences comes when Moreau as Catherine dresses up as a man whom she names Thomas, puts on a fake moustache, and races her two lovers across a bridge.

Moreau married the director William Friedkin in 1977. They had met a few years earlier when he was in France scouting locations for The French Connection. They lived in the US until their divorce two years later. "That marriage with Bill was an extraordinary experience, extremely painful and violent, but I'm happy I went through it," Moreau said.

She directed two well-made, but essentially old-fashioned films, Lumière (1976), about actors, and The Adolescent (1979), which drew on her late childhood during the occupation.

Few screen actors could match Moreau in the longevity of her allure, demonstrated in The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991), in which she was a witty and lecherous con artist.

“People – especially women – worry so much about ageing,” she said when she was in her 70s. “But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.”

Moreau is survived by her son, Jérôme Theodoros Roubanis.