Few actors have worked in cinema across eight decades. Jeanne Moreau began her career as an ingenue in 1949, and for my generation she was the icon of the French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Léaud may have been equally recognizable, but as the exclusive alter ego of François Truffaut, while Anna Karina’s fame stemmed from her involvement in the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Moreau, however, brought to the screen a singular, inimitable verve, a petulance, and a shameless gaze. Her range was extraordinary: she could play a nun in The Carmelites, the eccentric Miss Burstner in Welles’s The Trial, the peroxide-blonde gambler in Demy’s Bay of Angels, and the moody heroine of Peter Brook’s Moderato Cantabile. She soon became a favorite of masters like Antonioni, Buñuel, and Truffaut. Half-English, half-French, with a touch of Irish blood in her mother’s family, she illuminated such classics as Jules and Jim, The Lovers, Diary of a Chambermaid, and The Bride Wore Black.
In December of 2006, I interviewed her in Paris for the European Film Academy. Looking back, the appointment seemed doomed. My express train from Lausanne to Paris suffered an inordinate delay. I arrived barely on time at her apartment off the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Then, during the return journey that night, I accidentally dropped my microcassette recorder as the train entered a tunnel. The tape unraveled amid the feet of passengers and was badly scratched. Fortunately, I had a friend at Dolby in London who was able to restore it.
Anyway . . . as I emerged breathless from the elegant but cramped elevator, Jeanne Moreau was there to greet me—petite, gracious, and just a little nervous. But once we began sharing stories about Orson Welles, she relaxed, reached for one of her slender, extra-long cigarettes that stood in a bowl on her coffee table, and reminisced about the films she had made and the men she had known and loved.
“To me, acting is a calling, a way of life more than a career,” she emphasized. “My life feeds my art, and my art feeds my life. I didn’t want the destiny of a regular girl.” She could not meet the usual standards of beauty in French cinema of the 1950s. “It was the period of Martine Carol, Françoise Arnoul, Dany Robin—blonde girls, big eyes, big tits.” Her often soulful mien was so very different from the carnal insolence of a Bardot. Her decision to enter the theater provoked a rupture with her father. “Even now,” she said to me, more than half a century after her debut, “when I receive an award or a tribute, I think to myself, ‘Yes, I was right, and my father was wrong.’ ”
In 1950, Welles attempted to cast her in his stage presentation of An Unthinking Lobster at the Théâtre Edouard VII, but Moreau was under contract to la Comédie-Française. Antonioni tried to sign her for I vinti, but again she felt bound to her contract. One evening, Maurice Bessy, a French journalist who later became the director of the Cannes Film Festival, came to her dressing room and said that Welles wanted to meet her. “I was then playing Bianca in Othello,” said Jeanne. “My first husband, Jean-Louis Richard, was jealous and did not want me to go, but I did. Orson sat opposite me at the table, and many years later he reminded me that when he’d dropped me in the street outside my apartment, I had been too shy to say anything, and that he’d been dying to kiss me.”
When the nouvelle vague began sweeping ashore at the close of the 1950s, Moreau was in demand here, there, and everywhere. If François Truffaut and Louis Malle were not quite the equivalent of Jules and Jim in Moreau’s life, there’s no doubt that she felt profoundly attached to both men, and in particular to Malle. “Meeting Louis was like a rebirth for me. He was never accepted by the New Wave because he was independently wealthy, thanks to his family fortune. Louis was a loner, he didn’t want to be part of a group. He didn’t like sitting in cafés discussing films, as did Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette.” In 1957, Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows afforded Moreau the first truly demanding role of her screen career. “Everyone used to go out in the evenings in Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” she told me. “Boris Vian was always there, and he introduced me to his close friend Miles Davis.” Moreau mentioned Elevator to the Gallows to Davis and suggested he watch just a couple of reels, and it turned out that he already knew of the project and had met with Malle. “Let’s go to the studio now,” he said, “and we’ll record something.” By dawn, he and his sidemen had completed what would become an iconic score. Through the night, Davis stood and played his trumpet, looking like the quintessence of cool with his white shirt and tie, black blazer, and flawless grooming, while Moreau served drinks to him and the crew.
She became a muse for Welles, as for so many other creative talents. She introduced him to Romy Schneider, and he promptly cast Schneider as Leni in The Trial. In Chimes at Midnight, she played the delicious Doll Tearsheet, and three years later, in 1968, she luxuriated in seducing the young sailor in Welles’s The Immortal Story. We reminisced about the great man, whom I had met in the mid-1960s while writing a book about him. As I left her apartment, she signed my copy of the Criterion edition of Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows with the words: “For Peter Cowie, my ‘link’ to Orson and his beautiful films. Gratefully, Jeanne Moreau.”
Am I justified in devoting a “Flashback” to this greatest of French actresses after just one long meeting? If I am, it is because her personality runs like a watermark through so many of the significant films of my youth. She was always there. After more than 140 films, her curiosity has remained unquenched, her look imperturbable: the lustrous hair, the resolute eyes, the sensual, sulky mouth, the slightly rasping voice. “This is what I am,” these features seem to say. “Take me or leave me.” And we accept her, happily, on those terms.
This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.