The Secret to Simone Signoret’s Staying Power

From early on in her adult life, Simone Signoret learned how to be other without denying her identity—and the integrity this showed was reflected throughout her acting career. She was born Simone Kaminker and was half Jewish (through her father). At the time of the German Occupation, in her hopes of pursuing a career in movies, she changed her last name to Signoret (her mother’s maiden name) but did not renege on her Jewish heritage, refusing to be baptized Protestant. Under Occupation Law, her Jewish identity automatically excluded her from obtaining a work permit, and put her at risk of being denounced, thereby facing immediate arrest, imprisonment without trial, and eventual deportation to a concentration camp. But Signoret’s main purpose in adopting a non-Jewish name was less to hide than to be able to obtain walk-on parts in films without being asked to show a work permit.

The other major influence on Signoret during this dangerous period of her life was her introduction, in 1941, to the anarchist Groupe Octobre, made up of artists, actors, intellectuals, refugees, writers, poets, and communists who gathered daily at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. This became her family and an environment in which she developed her political acumen. But, given the subversive (and by 1943 illegal) nature of this group, Signoret was taking considerable risks. She further put herself in jeopardy by living at 7 rue du Dragon, which was an address for dropping off and receiving messages for the French Resistance. Signoret would relive some of this life of complete uncertainty in several Resistance films that she made: Against the Wind (1948), The Day and the Hour (1963), and Army of Shadows (1969).

Immediately after the Occupation, in 1945, Signoret’s career took off and from then on she developed her many-faceted persona as an actor, a mother, a politically engaged artist, a lover (she was married for decades to Yves Montand), and a writer. She mostly appeared in popular mainstream cinema, even though she is now more readily associated with art cinema—perhaps because her first major breakthrough film was Jacques Becker’s internationally acclaimed Casque d’or (1952), for which she won the BAFTA for best actress. Of her forty-five films, however, less than a quarter of them were with auteurs, even if the list of such directors with whom she worked is long and illustrious.

“Her performances are marked by their minimalism and restraint, relying on small gestures, her incendiary eyes, a look, a purposeful walk, and few words.”

Casque d’or

Signoret’s career can be conveniently split into three eras: the early days of ascendancy to stardom (1945–1957), with the three major hits Casque d’or, Thérèse Raquin (1953), and Diabolique (1955); the middle career (1958–1969), in which her international status was established with her Oscar-winning performance as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top (1959); and her late career (1970 until her death in 1985), in which, by the time of making Le chat, she was consecrated by the French as a monstre sacré, a status of venerable public figure rarely attributed to film stars. In all three periods, she consistently plays the strong woman who both knows her own mind and acts upon her desire, often through just a look.

Her early roles in popular films were often losers or victims, frequently on the seamier side of life. Signoret played a golden-hearted tart (La ronde, 1950; Casque d’or), a scheming female, even a murderer (Thérèse Raquin, Diabolique). Despite this relatively limited range, Signoret managed to deliver performances that were both modern and fascinating because they challenged the status quo of women as secondary or submissive to men. For example, in Diabolique, we are utterly convinced by the numerous seemingly conflicting personas she embodies: an imposing chemistry teacher, who defends her pupils against a bullying headmaster; that headmaster’s abused mistress, who somehow can keep her lover under control even in his worst manifestations; a protective friend to the headmaster’s wife, with whom she perhaps even shares lesbian desires.

In all instances, her performances are marked by their minimalism and restraint, relying on small gestures, her incendiary eyes, a look, a purposeful walk, and few words. She inhabits her roles while simultaneously displaying her own strength and intelligence. See, for example, the dance sequence early on in Casque d’or, in which she plays a gangster’s moll, Marie. While dancing with her current lover, Roland, she catches sight of another man and makes clear her attraction to him through an initial set of gazes. She then invites him to dance with her and engages in a second series of gazes, in which she tries to establish eye contact as he constantly looks away. Eventually, caught up in the swirl of their bodies and excitement of the music, he looks back. Her eyes, her look, and her smile all function to announce her desire.

Adua and Her Friends

After honing her skills in the early years, Signoret began to embody variations of the intelligent woman, often politically engaged and sexually mature, even if (as with the earlier roles) she still loses out. In Adua and Her Friends (1960), she has the drive and the smarts to outwit small-minded bureaucrats and set up a restaurant business with her women friends; she also stands up to a ruthless landlord, refusing his conditions even though it leads to her eviction. In Army of Shadows, she plays a leading Resistance fighter who plans all the major escapes for prisoners of war but transgresses the Resistance’s code of practice by keeping her daughter’s photograph on her, thus putting everyone at risk.

As she aged, Signoret brought to her roles an aura of wisdom, playing women who remain strong and who are capable of everyday courage while also being sexually alive. In The Widow Couderc (1971), a tale of suspicion, hate, and jealousy in which Signoret plays the eponymous character, she explains to her young lodger that at her age she is still a desiring body, and for a brief while they become lovers. 

Furthermore, in this last category of films, Signoret comes to represent a broad set of 1970s social, political, and historical issues in France. A number of her movies from this period have a double-layered history where the past is in dialogue with the present. A conflict between the collaborationist ideology of the Occupation and a desire to establish, postwar, a new kind of republican integrity is at the heart of Judith Therpauve (1978), ideals for which the heroine will perish. That film also reflects how, during this period, press barons were beginning to swallow up newspapers, something that Signoret fights as the title character. And while The Widow Couderc is set in the 1930s, its themes also resonate with the early 1970s. Scandal and civil unrest rumble around in the background of the film, as do the themes of exclusion, fear and marginalization, generational conflict, mistrust of technological change—all elements present in that decade. The film hints at the impact that industrial automation was having on the work sphere: even if, initially, Signoret’s character shows an open mind to change and readily looks to new forms of technology to improve her business, the implementation has undesirable consequences. Finally, the era’s numerous scandals involving real estate schemes, which culminated with a scam that led to the death of the Minister of Labor under suspicious circumstances, are reflected in Le chat, in which Signoret plays an embittered housewife who refuses to yield to property developers intent on demolishing her home, which was a source, in happier years, of so much love.

Curiously, unlike most female film stars, as she aged and her looks declined—prematurely in her case, from the early 1960s, due to alcohol and cigarettes—Signoret was as much in demand by filmmakers as in her early years. There are two main reasons for this longevity. First, she never conformed to the expectations of a female star. At the height of her attractiveness in the early era, it was not Signoret who was emblematic of France’s concept of beauty (nor did she strive to be) but Brigitte Bardot. In 1950s France, the female star’s body was supposed to be the sight and site of sexual beauty, in excess, but only in the sense of the body as spectacle. Signoret’s performance was the exact opposite in its lack of excess. In her minimalism, she reaches us through her body as the site of performance, not display—instead of being an object of the gaze, she asserts her agency.

The Widow Couderc

A watchable intelligent woman throughout her career, Signoret’s continued success, despite her aging body and swollen face, was due in part to her rejection of any masochistic relationship to her physical decline. When preparing for her role in Madame Rosa (1977), she stated, “I’m fat and ugly and I’m going to use it”—and she harnessed those traits  to her advantage. In this role, the aging Madame Rosa runs a house where prostitutes can live in safety; she also takes a young boy under her wing. We learn that she, too, in the distant past, plied the trade of prostitution, the only work she could turn her body to once she returned from incarceration in a concentration camp during the Second World War. From this we learn that she is a victim of the persecution of the Jews during the Occupation. We sense that her body wears all the traces of these scars from the past, and that she, in her ugly, fat body, is both the living portrait of the grotesqueness of France’s recent history and the living proof of the monumental courage it took to overcome that shameful past.

The second reason for her longevity is linked to the first: her authenticity. Signoret’s performances strike us through their veracity; she has the right touch and gestures. Her voice, through all the stages of her career, excites the ear. Her manner of speaking and gesturing has a way of leaving life in the air, as if offering a history to which we are all privy. Her authenticity lies in her being available to us in her ordinariness and her courage. Her understated clothing; her roles, nearly all of them ordinary women; her weaving of her own pastimes (such as knitting and crosswords) into her characterizations; her insolence (often indicated through her stance, hands firmly lodged on her hips); her vulgarity (particularly the way she holds cigarettes and stamps them out); her vulnerability (hinted at through her lisp): all of this makes her accessible.

But so too does the authenticity she had as a real person: she was a politicized, active, and intelligent woman espousing many social and judicial causes. In the 1950s, she signed the Stockholm Peace Agreement; in the 1960s, she campaigned for the legalization of abortion; in the 1970s, she petitioned for better prison conditions and for workers’ rights, while also fighting for the release of left-wing intellectuals; and, in the early 1980s, she helped to promote the anti-racism movement SOS Racisme. In her acting, she did not create characters; rather, she created existences by inhabiting the roles, becoming both herself and other. Signoret said she felt that because she always stayed in touch with what went on in the outside world, she was able to play so many different characters.

Unlike many stars, Signoret felt substantial; she had matter and could be touched. Her aura was counterpointed by an everyday normality that allowed her to continue to star in films years after she stopped being a beauty—because being a beauty was not the issue; being able to perform was. Therein lies her specialness: she was never commodified, thus never fixed. She created a freedom for herself that allowed her to go through all ages of womanhood in spectacular form.

Seven of Simone Signoret’s greatest performances are now available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Click here to watch!