Jeanne Moreau, Actrice

Jeanne Moreau

A few weeks after Jeanne Moreau died in 2017, Terrence Rafferty wrote here in the Current that she was “one of those actors who seemed sometimes to stop the camera dead in its tracks, just to watch her. She altered the tempo of films all by herself.” From Friday through March 16, New York’s Film Forum will present Jeanne Moreau, Actrice, a series of nineteen features, many of them screening from 35 mm prints. Film Forum will then follow up with Jeanne Moreau, Cinéaste (March 17 through 23), and in a week or two, we’ll take a closer look at this showcase of new restorations of three films Moreau directed.

When you think of Moreau, the two scenes most likely to come to mind are the nighttime stroll through the streets of Paris over the strains of Miles Davis’s improvised score in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the ecstatic dash across a bridge with Henri Serre and Oskar Werner in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). Both landmarks in the oeuvres of their respective directors are monuments to Moreau’s remarkable face, the dangerous lure of the seemingly infinite depths of her eyes, the mouth that rests in a pout but that can also spread wide in rejuvenating laughter.

Elevator was Malle’s first feature—he was twenty-four, Moreau was thirty—but Moreau, already a respected talent in French theater, had been making movies for a decade. Few of her performances broke through, although Film Forum does offer one notable sampling from the pre-Elevator period, Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). Moreau plays Josy, a dancer who spoils the retirement plans of two aging gangsters (Jean Gabin and René Dary) when she tells a drug dealer (Lino Ventura) about the loot they’re sitting on.

As Ginette Vincendeau wrote in a 1998 issue of Sight and Sound, Moreau appears in Elevator as “a new type of sensual heroine, a modern femme fatale without the clichéd trappings of the traditional vamp.” Malle insisted not only on shooting on location and natural lighting (the cinematographer was the great Henri Decaë) but also on removing most of Moreau’s makeup. As Vincendeau points out, he was aiming for “a more cerebral type of female eroticism, based on the face rather than the body.”

In Jules and Jim, the tight friends discover the face before the woman. Entranced by a photograph of a bust of an ancient goddess, they travel to an island in the Adriatic Sea to study the statue up close. Back home, they meet the woman who brings the visage to life: Catherine. Writing for the Guardian in 2008, Germaine Greer recalled how she and her friends took Moreau’s Catherine “as a role model to establish a fashion for heavy black eye-liner, pale lips, sloppy jumpers, and flappy skirts. Some even went so far as to try the Jackie Coogan cap worn by Catherine when she is masquerading as Thomas. We could all whistle ‘Le tourbillon de la vie.’ Catherine seemed a woman after our own hearts, who followed her desires rather than the rules.”

Over time, though, Catherine’s spell over Greer faded, and eventually, it soured: “I hope I am not wrong in thinking that most people seeing Jules and Jim for the first time will find the ending to be not an act of poetic justice, but the final atrocious extravagance of an indulged and destructive narcissist.” The measure of a great film is the degree to which it changes between viewings at various stages in our lives.

Film Forum will also screen Malle’s The Lovers (1958), in which Moreau’s “‘scandalous’ representation of female desire,” notes Vincendeau, set off “an even bigger stir” than Elevator; The Fire Within (1963), a key influence on Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); and Viva Maria! (1965), a comedy featuring Moreau and Brigitte Bardot as turn-of-the-century revolutionaries in a fictional country in Central America. Truffaut makes a second showing in the series with The Bride Wore Black (1968), a Hitchcockian tale of revenge and, as Chuck Bowen writes at Slant, “a ghost story of a woman living out a chameleonic cycle of death that’s forced upon her by oblivious male blowhards.”

Between Elevator and Jules and Jim, Moreau appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961), a film “structured around and directed by her dark, intense gaze, by turns dissatisfied, curious, amused, accusing, tragic,” as Imogen Sara Smith observes. In Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels (1963), Moreau’s “emotions, scene to scene and moment to moment, are clear, forceful, bold,” writes Rafferty. “The only mystery about them, really, is how quickly and how fluidly they change, one to another and another, like chords in a song.”

Moreau worked with Peter Brook on Moderato cantabile (1960), an adaptation of the 1958 novel by Marguerite Duras. Moreau, whose Anne fears that Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Chauvin is out to kill her, won the Best Actress award in Cannes. “It’s as if there’s no state of mind Moreau won’t explore in Moderato cantabile, and her emotional registers are very unusual in that movie, even eccentric,” writes Dan Callahan at

The Los Angeles Times was enthralled, and the New York Times was not. Writing in the Village Voice in 1964, Andrew Sarris suggested that the “aptest comment on the film is rendered in Jean-Luc Godard’s enchanting musical A Woman Is a Woman, when Belmondo bumps into Moreau in a bar and asks her how she’s doing. ‘Moderato,’ she responds with eloquent indifference.”

Duras later adapted a story by Jean Genet, and Roger Ebert found that the screenplay for Mademoiselle (1966), directed by Tony Richardson, “reads like something out of Evergreen Review by way of French pornography . . . Still, Miss Moreau is as flawless in her lousy roles as her good ones.” Through the good reviews and the bad, Moreau and Duras were close friends and neighbors, and as Katie Pleming notes at Another Gaze, when Duras set out to make her third feature, “Moreau signed without reading the script.”

Moreau and Lucía Bosé are going about their household chores, worrying about the latter’s potentially violent young daughter, Nathalie Granger (Valérie Mascolo), and listening to reports of child killers on the loose when a salesman (Gérard Depardieu) drops in as if from another world. In Nathalie Granger (1972), it’s “Moreau’s presence which renders the film’s resistance to patriarchal codes so emphatic,” writes Pleming, “as Duras refuses the voyeuristic framing of the Nouvelle Vague icon, Moreau’s star status serves not to glamorize the spectacle of domestic femininity, but rather to disclose the banal universality of hidden, feminized labor.”

Moreau worked with Joseph Losey on three films, and Film Forum has selected two (you can watch the third, La truite (1982), on the Criterion Channel). In Eva (1962), she’s a “cigarette-dangling concubine [who] loves money and hates men, listens to Billie Holiday, and wields a mean bullwhip,” writes Fernando F. Croce. In Mr. Klein (1976), she appears as the aristocratic mistress of a mysterious doppelgänger.

Orson Welles, who once famously called Moreau “the greatest actress in the world,” first cast her in a small role in The Trial (1962), and then as Doll Tearsheet opposite his own Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966). In The Immortal Story (1968), an adaptation of one of his favorite stories by Isak Dinesen, Welles plays a wealthy merchant in nineteenth-century Macao. He aims to recreate a tale he once heard from a sailor and hires Virginie (Moreau) to play a part.

In 2001, Moreau told Jeff Galipeaux in Salon that when she decided to direct her first feature, the “only man who was behind me was Orson. Nearly all the film directors are macho. Except Buñuel. He was a crazy man.” Luis Buñuel, of course, directed Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), in which her Célestine “freely and passively indulges the whims of the film’s elite because she too aims for a position at the top of the bourgeois food chain,” as Ed Gonzalez writes at Slant.

Moreau carried on working well into the new century, and to represent the not-so-late phase of her career, Film Forum has selected Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), another echo of her friendship with Genet. In her prime, Moreau “inhabited the postwar French spirit expertly,” writes Roderick Heath, “glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humor and knowing cosmopolitan skepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either.”

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