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Why Jeanne Moreau Was One of the Greatest French Actresses of All-Time

The face of the French New Wave, and so much more, has passed away at the age of 89.

Jeanne Moreau was to French cinema as Manet’s “Olympia” was to French painting — the personification of the gait, glance, and gesture of modern life. Her darting brown eyes and enigmatic moue were the face of the French New Wave. Her candid sensuality and self-assurance, not to mention the suggestion that she was always in control, made her the epitome of the New Woman. From Orson Welles and Luis Bunuel to Joseph Losey and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Moreau was the muse to the greatest directors of world cinema.

“She has all the qualities one expects in a woman,” quipped Francois Truffaut, director of her most beloved film, “Jules and Jim” (1962), “plus all those one expects in a man — without the inconveniences of either.”

Surprisingly, this quintessence of French femininity had an English mother, a dancer at the Folies Bergere. Her French father, a hotelier and restaurateur, upon learning that his daughter likewise had theatrical ambitions, slapped her upside the head. Inflamed by the desire to prove him wrong, she enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris at 16, and joined the French National Theatre Populaire at 19. By her twenties she established herself on stage as a leading lady of the Comedie Francaise.

Less a conventional screen beauty than an elemental presence on screen, Moreau was possessed of rare earthiness and fire that gave her both the depth and light mere lacking in actresses like Brigitte Bardot. Although by the late 1950s Moreau had appeared in more than a dozen films, she did not make an impression until she played the faithless wife in a pair of 1958 movies by Louis Malle, “Elevator to the Gallows” and “The Lovers.” In the latter, she was a bourgeois wife who abandons her husband and family for her lover. In one ecstatic scene, Malle focuses on her face as she achieves orgasm, quite controversial at the time, even in France. Moreau was 30.

The world was smitten. So was Malle, one of many directors — including Truffaut and Tony Richardson and William Friedkin — with whom this free woman and freer spirit was romantically involved.

Moreau’s stage training equipped her with the tools to be equally eloquent in long shot as in close-up. Is there a movie sequence with more joie de vivre than one in “Jules and Jim” with Moreau dressed in the clothes of one of her lovers, racing both of them across a bridge, her smile a warming sunbeam? Or a more piercing definition of existential sadness than Moreau, seeming to sleepwalk through Milan, or slumped in a kitchen chair with her husband Marcello Mastroianni) and his new love interest (Monica Vitti) in Michelangelo’s “La Notte” (1961)?

(From the 1960s though the 1980s, in Bertrand Blier’s “Going Places,” it seemed inevitable that her characters were enmeshed in on-screen menages a trois.)

A master at modulating her moods, Moreau was also an expert at modulating her voice, which ranged from silky whisper to a Gauloises-cured growl. The voice she used for a role told everything about the class and education or her characters. Yet because of her extraordinarily expressive face and body language, Moreau didn’t require dialogue to convey a character’s emotions.

She was committed to experimental cinema before it was chic, taking roles in “Moderato Cantabile” (1960) and “Nathalie Granger” (1972), both written and the latter also directed by Marguerite Duras, her longtime friend.

On the brink of her fiftieth birthday, Moreau made her filmmaking debut as the writer/director/star of “Lumiere” (1976), a tale of female friendship also featuring Lucia Bose, her co-star in “Nathalie Granger.” While at the time many wrote it off as a vanity project by and about a celebrated actress, in retrospect the film emerges as a contemplation of human priorities. Moreau made two more films, including an excellent 1983 documentary on Lillian Gish, possibly the only actress who face was more expressive than her own.

About the time “Lumiere” was released, Moreau began publicly dismissing actors who behaved as though acting was a way of life. For her, there was more to life than making films. And she shunned cosmetic surgery, embracing every birthday as representing a gift of increasing wisdom..

Moreau’s seven-decade career was so long and varied, that it’s hard to single out one definitive film. If I had to name my favorite Moreau performance, it would be “The Trout” (1982), the Joseph Losey film starring Isabelle Huppert, with Moreau as an older, married woman who advises the younger one, with a shrug of the shoulders, “Homosexual, heterosexual, what does it matter? The important thing is that one is sexual — or not.”

In her final years Moreau became an aphorist, advising others against fear of death, aging and love. “Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age,” she said. And to those, such as this interviewer who once asked her if she was nostalgic for the New Wave, she would say sternly, “The life you had is nothing. It’s the life you have that’s important!”

Of all the encomiums to Moreau today, the most penetrating came from French President Emmanuel Macron: “She had in her eye a sparkle that deflected deference and inspired insolence, freedom, the turbulence of life she liked so much and she will long make us like.”

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