By Gabrielle Garrieux
I was in England with my husband when the news of Jeanne Moreau’s death broke, announced by none other than President Emmanuel Macron, who said she died at her home on July 31 at the age of 89. His announcement was an acknowledgement of her status in France, and to the arts she represented.
I had interviewed her several times over the years. Although we got on well and the interviews were excellent and revealing, I never got close to her like I did with others in the entertainment world. She always seemed to keep a distance, letting you in only so far. I took it as part of her mystique, a mystique that served her well over the course of her career. In France we called her the thinking cinephile’s femme fatale and she fit that description perfectly.
The American press labeled her “The Femme Fatale of the New Wave,” but she more than transcended that label. She was a powerful actress. While not as glamorous as contemporaries Jean Seberg and Anna Karina, her acting ability enabled her to bring a new dimension to her roles. She embodied a new kind of freedom, seen in the spontaneous, seemingly unpredictable style of her performances and in the characters she played, characters that broke the bounds.
Although she was not generally considered photogenic, she more than made up for it by using her personality and stage training, showing audiences that sexy is not simply a matter of glamour, but in how one carries oneself. She once told me, “Want to make men notice you? Then carry yourself as if you don’t give a damn.”
The first time I saw her was while I was at the university. I attended a screening of Jules and Jim at a revival theater in Paris. She played Catherine, a capricious woman, loved by the title characters (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) and who turned their desire into a tragic ménage à trois.
I was captivated by her command of the screen, and after awhile I forgot all about Werner and Serre and concentrated on Jeanne. She possessed a personal magnetism that made one follow her, as if she and she alone was the only person on the screen.
Later, when I met and interviewed her, I realized that she was Catherine, headstrong and willful in her decisions. It’s what made her into a star.
Jeanne was a true daughter of Paris, born there Jan. 23, 1928. Although she seems the essence of France, her mother, Katherine (nee Buckley) was born in Lancashire, England, and danced at the Folies Bergère. Her father, Anatole-Désiré Moreau, was the owner of a Montmartre hotel and restaurant.
Thinking about her mother, she let out a quiet laugh. “Maybe that’s why I attracted so many Anglo-Saxon directors like Orson Welles and Tony Richardson,” she said as she took a sip of espresso. “I’m very proud of my English heritage. It made me different from other actresses of the time and I think audiences could see that.”
She told me that when she was about a year old, “my father moved us down to Vichy, where he opened a small hotel and restaurant. We lived in a small town outside Vichy called Mazirat.” The Moreau family dominated the village; Jeanne said she came from a long line of farmers. “It was so nice,” she said. “It seemed that almost every tombstone in the local cemetery had the name Moreau on it. I was quite the tomboy, climbing trees, riding my bicycle around the countryside, and generally getting into trouble with my sister. I went to a strict Catholic school, so you could imagine how I drove the nuns to distraction.”
Beneath the idyll, however, existed a personal hell. Her parents’ marriage was far from a happy one. “I used to wonder later in life why my parents ever married,” she said. “My father’s family was ashamed of him for marrying a dancer and never made my mother feel welcome.” In addition, Anatole drank heavily. “He even refused to learn English, I think, just to spite my mother.” The stress in the marriage led Katherine to pack up Jeanne and her sister Michelle and move back to England, but when war broke out Katherine decided that her place was with her husband and returned to France.
During the war the family was separated and she lived in Paris with her mother while her father hid down south from the Germans, making occasional visits to Paris. Her mother, as an enemy alien, was forced to stay in Paris and report to the Gestapo every day. “We lived in an apartment right above a brothel,” she said. “I remember whenever I went out on an errand or to see my friends I had to make my way past the line of German soldiers waiting their turn. I ran fast and tried not to look. Is it any wonder that books became my escape?”
She was an excellent student, but when she saw a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone at the age of 15, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. “My father had forbidden me to go to the theatre or the cinema, but my school friends spoke of little else. It wasn’t like there was a lot to do in Occupied Paris. We decided one day to skip a Latin class and see Antigone. Being there in the audience I felt that my place wasn’t there in the dark. No, it was on stage. I came out of the theatre completely overwhelmed, knowing the path I wanted to follow in life. I wanted more than anything to be an actress. It was not a money or a fame thing but an escape from real life. I went to see more and more plays, becoming entranced with the idea of acting for a living. I forgot about school.”
But when she told her father for her future plans, “he slapped me across the face and called me a whore. He said he never wanted to hear me speak of it again.” (Jeanne’s father reconciled withhis daughter’s profession only a few years before he died in 1975.)
“I believe his opposition to my choice was that he didn’t want me following in my mother’s footsteps,” she said. “And I never spoke of it again, at least to him,” she said. “My mother, on the other hand, was more sympathetic. She asked a neighbor of ours, who was an actor, for advice. He recommended a drama teacher.”
The teacher carefully and painstakingly prepared her for an audition at the Conservatoir National d’Art Dramatique. He did his job well, for she was accepted almost immediately after her audition, and a year later made her debut at the Comédie Francaise in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. At only 20 years old she became a member of the company, the youngest ever to achieve that position. During her four years there she appeared in 22 parts, being cast in almost every production.
When I asked her about her father’s violent opposition, she said it was a blessing in disguise, for it steeled her resolve to make a success of her career. “I wanted to prove to him that I was right and that he was wrong.”
While at the conservatory her parents separated. “My mother, after 24 very difficult years in France, finally got the strength to leave my father. She took my sister Michelle and returned to England.”
In 1949, she married Jean-Louis Richard. “We met at the Conservatoire and one could say it was love at first sight. I was alone. I wanted to get away from my father. Jean-Louis was the right man at the right time, unfortunately. He was wonderful to me, but we married for all the wrong reasons. But I did get a beautiful son out of the marriage.” The day they married Jeanne gave birth to a son, Jerome. She returned to work a month later, leaving Jerome in the care of her mother-in-law. Soon the marriage began to fall apart. After two years of marriage, Richard left, although they would remain close friends. They didn’t officially divorce until 1964.
Jeanne left the Comédie Francaise in 1952, spending a year at the prestigious Théatre National Populaire, where she was a cast in a supporting role as a prostitute in a new play by Anna Bonacci called L’Heure Eblouissante (The Dazzling Hour). On the second night, the star of the show fell ill and Jeanne was asked to take her part. She learned it overnight, and the next evening, since the two characters never appeared onstage at the same time, she was able to play both roles. “I was alternating between an honest woman who feels like a street walker and a streetwalker who feels like an honest woman.” The play was a hit, running for two years and almost 500 performances.
Jeanne moved onto other productions, including Jean Cocteau’s La Machine Infernale and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which she had a two-year run. It was while she was in the Paris production of Tennessee Williams’s melodrama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that she was spotted by director Louis Malle, who immediately saw her as the star in his new production.
It is supposed by some that Jeanne’s movie debut was because of Malle, but in reality Moreau had been appearing in films since 1949, accepting small parts here and there. Her most famous role back then was her turn as the call girl dancer Josy in Jacques Becker’s 1954 crime drama Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot), a role she barely remembered in our interview. “I never felt comfortable in films because I felt I was far from beautiful. It might have continued like that if not for Louis.”
Malle wanted her as the star of his debut feature, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, first released in America in 1961 as Frantic.). She played a woman whose lover (Maurice Ronet) murders her rich husband in a perfectly planned murder, only to find himself trapped in a broken down elevator while leaving the scene of the crime. Malle hit upon the idea of using light makeup on his star, allowing her to fill in the rest. By using her natural charisma instead of relying on makeup, she created a new sort of “natural” star, one French women could identify with. “Louis thought I was crazy to think I wasn’t good looking. He showed me how just a little makeup and the ability to carry oneself could bring out my natural beauty, as he called it. I placed myself in his care and never regretted it for one moment.”
Malle and Moreau followed this up in 1958 with his film Les Amants (The Lovers) with Moreau as a bored wife who abandons her home and family for a casual lover she has met. The film’s explicit love scenes caused it to run into trouble with the censors, which, in turn, made an ordinary drama into a must-see picture. But the intensity of the love scenes, added to the attention Moreau was drawing from the press, led her to end her affair with Malle, through they remained close friends for years afterward. He later directed Moreau in Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within, 1963) and Viva Maria! (1965), co-starring with Brigitte Bardot.
While filming Moderato Cantabile (Seven Days, Seven Nights, 1960) on location in the south of France, Moreau suffered a near personal tragedy. Co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo invited her 10-year-old son Jérôme for a ride in his sports car. They crashed and the boy was rushed to a clinic where he lay in a coma for 16 days before eventually making a full recovery. Moreau saw it as a wake-up call. Having experienced the near death of someone she loved made her value life all the more. This in turn led her to new interests, such as becoming a recording artist. With a husky voice honed by a nearly three pack-day Gauloises habit, she had a string of successful releases. (She also performed with Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall.) She purchased a farm house in the south of France, where she would spend most of her leisure time reading, cooking, and entertaining friends.
It was while she was at a personal crossroads that she met Francois Truffaut. At this point Jeanne was desperate for a part in which she could sink her heart and soul into. Truffaut offered her the part of Catherine in Jules et Jim. Adapted from Henri-Pierre Roché's novel of the same name, it takes place in the belle époque period in Paris, telling the story of best friends Jules and Jim who both fall in love with the same woman.
In the months leading up to production, Truffaut spent much of his time at Moreau’s house developing the script with his star. This developed into a passionate, though brief, love affair,. However, by the end of filming it had evolved into an everlasting friendship. Truffaut introduced her to serious filmmakers and intellectuals, expanding her horizons and allowing her to see cinema as something beyond simply being an actress. Jules et Jim became a critical and commercial success, winning numerous prizes worldwide and cementing Moreau’s status as a major actress and cultural icon. Her portrayal of a woman who lives for the moment inspired many young women to rethink their roles in society.
After Jules et Jim Moreau hit a speed bump of sorts with the production of Eva, in which she plays a high-class prostitute who destroys the life of a Welsh writer (Stanley Baker) living in Venice. “I asked the producers for Jean-Luc Godard as director,” she told me. “He signed the contract, and got some money upfront, for which he was supposed to deliver a first draft in a month. Well, the month comes and goes. The producers want to know where the screenplay is. I don’t know. Godard’s supposed to deliver it. Finally he does – and it’s a one-page letter! Now the producers are yelling at me! ‘Where did you get that crazy bum?’ Finally, my co-star, Stanley Baker suggested his friend Joe Losey and I agreed. He was a good director, although I found him a bit strange.”
Jeanne’s next starring role saw her give one of her best performances. In La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels, 1963) she plays Jacqueline Demaistre, a compulsive gambler who leads a young bank clerk (Claude Mann) astray. She was so impressed with the then unknown director, Jacques Demy, that she agreed to co-produce the film. “I was disappointed that we could never get together to do a musical. I mean, Deneuve couldn’t even sing. I could. It would have been a lot of fun.”
Her growing international fame brought offers to appear in English language productions, the best of which was John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1965), with Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield. “I enjoyed working with Burt,” she said. “He always challenged himself during the filming and I admired that.” Although the films gave her exposure outside France, none compared with the smaller films with which she made her name. She summed them up as “a learning experience.”
One of her best films was made in 1964 for director Luis Bunuel. Diary of a Chambermaid saw her as an unscrupulous maid who discovers she has an ability to influence the lives of her masters. Though a critical and commercial flop when released, it has since come to be regarded as a classic.
In 1966 she became involved with director Tony Richardson, with whom she made two films, Mademoiselle (1966) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), both commercial and critical flops. When Richardson’s then-wife, Vanessa Redgrave, filed for divorce, she named Moreau as co-respondent.
In 1967 she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (“It just wasn’t for me.”) to star in Truffaut's homage to Hitchcock, La Mariée était en Noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1968) as a widow who kills the men responsible for her husband’s murder. If she looked worn on the screen it was due to the stress of her break-up with designer Pierre Cardin.
After the failure of Orson Welles’ troubled production of The Deep, Jeanne retreated to her farmhouse, remaining there for almost a year. She was now 40 and feeling exhausted. “I was unhappy with my recent work and wanted time to reflect. So I threw myself into other things, tending the vineyards, making jam, and looking after my sick father. The less time I had to brood over my career the better off I was.”
She was lured out of this semi-retirement to make Monte Walsh (1970), with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. In 1975, with encouragement from Orson Welles, she took her first turn at directing.Lumière follows four actresses of different ages and their relationships with one another, their men and their careers. The reviews were good enough to get Jeanne behind the camera once again with L’Adolescente (The Adolescent, 1979), a tender coming-of-age story set in the French countryside in the years just before World War Two based on her personal experiences. (In 1983 she directed a documentary about silent-screen star Lillian Gish.)
“L’Adolescente came at the right moment. I was depressed after my second marriage fell apart and needed to lose myself in work.” In 1977 Jeanne married director William Friedkin, moving with him to Los Angeles. But their conflicting schedules left little time to be together, and as a result, the marriage floundered. “The marriage was an extraordinary experience, extremely painful and violent, but I never regretted it,” Moreau said. She moved back to Paris and took a small apartment in Paris, taking time off to recover her health. “I could have retreated to my farmhouse,” she said. “But at this time I felt I needed to be around people, to be in the city and feel the vibrancy.”
In 1982 she made a comeback in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, Querelle. When Fassbinder died shortly after completing the film, Moreau took it upon herself to promote it, a difficult undertaking because of its explicit gay subject matter.
She spent the next four years traveling, forming her own production company (producing a number of projects for television), and acting in a few television productions. These included L’Arbre (1984) and The Last Séance (1986), both of which dealt with death. This was a theme that preoccupied Jeanne at the time, having lost such close friends as Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut and Luis Bunuel. “I’ve learned that as long as I think of them and continue to be influenced by them, they remain alive to me each and every day.”
In 1986 she not only returned to the silver screen, but also to the stage, where her performance in the play Le Récit de la Servante Zerline (as a servant who tells a guest in a château the story of her life), marked her greatest stage triumph since the 1950s. She revitalized her career by taking the production on a worldwide tour. It would have been easier just to sit back and drink in the plaudits, but that was never Jeanne’s style.
Notable films included Luc Besson’s Nikita, a thriller about a female government assassin, and Wim Wenders’ epic Until the End of the World (1990), where she played a blind woman who, at the end of her life, is finally able to see. She also starred in a series of six television films based on Jean Giorno’s Ennemonde, as a wife and mother of nine who falls for a fairground wrestler and finds the real meaning of love.
Other films followed, keeping Moreau busy until the end of her life. Her last film appearance was in 2015, in a small role as the protagonist’s grandmother in Alex Lutz’s comedy Le Talent de Mes Amis (The Talent of My Friends).
A recipient of many awards during her lifetime, Jeanne also achieved that rare phenomenon of being celebrated while still working, with film retrospectives in her honor. Among the many awards she has received are the Légion d’honneur, the Fellowship of the British Film Institute, a Golden Lion for career achievement at the 1991 Venice Film Festival and a 1997 European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also the first woman inducted into the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
I remember an interview she granted me while in her 70s. “People – especially women – worry about aging,” she said. “But, believe me, if you want to look younger, then don’t worry about it. Don’t give it even so much as a thought. Beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.”
Rarely has a star so captivated her audience to the extent Jeanne Moreau did. She remained vitally alive throughout her career, refusing to be deterred by circumstances or fortunes. Her son Jerome, an artist, survives her.