In memoriam: Jeanne Moreau, 1928-2017

Pictured: the late Jeanne Moreau with Jean-Marc Bory in The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958); with Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1958); with Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961); in Jules et Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1962); with Claude Mann in Bay of Angels (dir. Jacques Demy, 1962); with Maurice Ronet in The Fire Within (dir. Louis Malle, 1963); with Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1964); in The Bride Wore Black (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1968); with Lucia Bose in Nathalie Granger (dir. Marguerite Duras, 1972); in Querelle (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982); and with Melvil Poupaud in Time To Leave (dir. Francois Ozon, 2006). 

Moreau could play steely and cold in movies like Bay of Angels, which Pauline Kael likened to a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle.  She could do a caricature of Dietrich for Fassbinder in Querelle.  She could be a free spirit, a bored housewife, a femme fatale: as Catherine in Jules et Jim, she plays nearly all of these roles at various points.  Her entrance in that film is one of the great entrances in cinema.  Perhaps no other actress could have been so enchanting as to convince us that the two title characters would spend the next thirty years of their lives in reckless pursuit of her.  Jules and Jim see her as the embodiment of an ancient statue whose face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—has obsessed them since their youth. 

Moreau’s appeal didn’t rest on prettiness; it had to do with something regal, vibrant, and slightly haunted about her.  Even in her liveliest roles, like Catherine, there comes a point when the fun and games stop and she reveals some intensely private and wounded part of herself.  Her liveliness and joy suddenly congeal into a heaviness around her cheeks and her mouth.  (Jules and Jim is about nothing so much as the decades-long struggle of its male characters to reconcile themselves to these two sides of her personality.)  In The Lovers that moment happens when, almost immediately after walking out on her family with her new paramour, still radiating afterglow, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a cafĂ© mirror and seems to freeze.  She searches her face as if for some answer to who she is and what she’s doing.  Those of us who have spent nearly a lifetime watching her on screen will continue to search her face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—for answers to those same questions.  

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