There was the dry, husky voice that hinted at a million smoked Gauloises. There were the dark eyes, carnal and enigmatic. There was the brooding, slightly downward curve of her lips, a sultry pout that could flash capriciously into a beguiling smile. She was playful and dangerous.
The French actress Jeanne Moreau, who became one of the most popular and bewitching film stars of the 1960s, died July 31 at 89 in Paris. Her career spanned seven decades and nearly 150 movie and TV roles, establishing her as the thinking man’s femme fatale.
Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jacques Demy, Tony Richardson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were among the international directors who cast her in their movies. Most spoke rapturously of Moreau — Welles called her “the greatest actress in the world” — and a few became her lovers.
Critics and audiences found Moreau spellbinding, particularly in roles in which she embodied liberated sexuality or in which her outward composure masked boundless complexity. Movie scholar David Shipman once described her as the “art-house love goddess.”
She was associated with the French New Wave, a filmmaking movement that swept away conventional characters and storytelling forms. Perhaps her most enduring New Wave film was Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962), in which she played a free spirit at the center of a love triangle set before and after World War I. She portrayed an exquisite chameleon, elusive and shape-shifting, opposite male leads (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) who project their desires on her.
Moreau was radiantly feminine in the role, even in scenes where she sported a fake moustache, a cap and a cigar. She sings the film’s theme song, “Le Tourbillon de la Vie,” whose lyrics about a “femme fatale who was fatal to me” anticipate the film’s tragic climax.
The film was startling, observed film historian Jeanine Basinger, for its portrayal of a woman demanding “equal choices, equal sexuality without being presented as a harpy.” Moreau’s performance helped elevate her to the front rank of stardom.
“There is no actress in Hollywood or Europe who can match the depth and breadth of her art,” Time magazine rhapsodized in a 1965 cover story about Moreau, noting her portrayal of a nun during the French Revolution in “Le Dialogue des Carmelites” (1960) and a modern courtesan in “Eva” (1962).
Moreau excelled in stories of compulsion. In Malle’s “The Lovers” (1958), she abandons her child and bourgeois husband for a stranger who rekindles her sexual ardor. The film’s depiction of female sexual pleasure figured in a U.S. Supreme Court test of obscenity laws, prompting Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable line about pornography: “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
In Demy’s “Bay of Angels” (1963), sporting a chic Pierre Cardin suit and peroxide blond hair, she is a gambling addict on the French Riviera who has forsaken her son. In Buñuel’s “Diary of a Chamber Maid” (1964), she plays a servant who arouses and manipulates sexual and political tensions.
In Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” (1968), she methodically wreaks vengeance on the men responsible for the death of her husband on their wedding day. The plot of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” is heavily indebted to the Truffaut film.
Basinger said Moreau continued to maintain a high-caliber career in Europe, but she did not enjoy the lasting prominence of European actresses such as Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, who embraced Hollywood and its publicity machine.
In contrast, Moreau avoided the long contracts often demanded by big studios, likening them to prison terms. She took isolated roles in American films, but her mystique was often lost amid the teeming international casts of movies such as “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1964). She said she accepted a part in “5 Branded Women” (1960), about Yugoslav partisans during World War II, because she needed to pay back taxes in a hurry.
“Not only did they shave all my hair off, but the picture was bad,” she later told the New York Times. “I considered myself justly punished.”
In Europe, Moreau used her star power to help novice directors and actors she believed in. Her melancholy character helped ground “Going Places” (1974), an otherwise bawdy, anti-feminist comedy that helped make Gerard Depardieu a star. In the action thriller “La Femme Nikita” (1990), she was an etiquette specialist trying to mold an unruly street urchin (Anne Parillaud) into a trained assassin with feminine wiles.
“Smile when you don’t know something,” Moreau’s character deadpans. “You won’t be any smarter, but it’s nice for the others.”
Jeanne Moreau was born in Paris on Jan. 23, 1928, and grew up in an unhappy home. Her mother was an English-born chorus-line dancer, and her French father, a former cafe owner, was mercurial and quick to rage. At one point, during the Nazi occupation, the family lived in a one-room flat above a brothel.
Theater became an escape from poverty and the tumult of home. She often skipped school to attend plays and in 1944, at 16, saw a production of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone.”
“I was amazed because in ‘Antigone’ the girl rebels,” Moreau told her biographer, Marianne Gray. “She resists authority. She is not afraid of time. I wanted to be like her.”
In 1948, she became one of the youngest members in the history of the venerable Comedie-Francaise. She began to draw praise for her performances on the Parisian stage, notably as the sex-starved Maggie in a 1956 staging of Tennessee Williams’ melodrama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
By that time, she had been in nearly two dozen movies, usually squandered in parts as a gangster’s moll. But Malle, a little-known documentary filmmaker, was dazzled by “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He went backstage and begged Moreau to star in his first feature, a low-budget drama called “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958).
Her agent called it beneath her talent. But Moreau liked Malle’s passion, and she fired her agent.
The film, now regarded as a minor classic, was a crime story: two lovers plot to kill the woman’s wealthy husband. For long stretches of the film, elevated by trumpeter Miles Davis’s moody score, the camera follows Moreau wandering Parisian streets, pondering the outcome of the plan she set in motion.
“Her greatness is, of course, that in the space of a few seconds, you can see changes of mood on her face,” Malle told Gray.
Moreau’s subsequent performance in “The Lovers” led to a cascade of roles as scheming adulteresses and frozen-souled wives. Among them were director Roger Vadim’s jazz-scored version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (1959); “Moderato Cantabile” (1960), co-starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as her working-class lover; and Antonioni’s “La Notte” (1961) opposite Marcello Mastroianni as her equally numbed husband.
She made movie choices that seemed indiscriminate but were based mostly on her admiration for the director.
She took small parts to work for Welles, who cast her as a drunken flirt in “The Trial” (1962), from the Franz Kafka story, and as the wench Doll Tearsheet in “Chimes at Midnight” (1965).
For Malle, she agreed to “Viva Maria!” (1965), a ludicrous musical comedy that featured her with Brigitte Bardot as unlikely sisters and Latin American revolutionaries. In “Mademoiselle” (1966), directed by Tony Richardson, she played a sexually frustrated and sociopathic village schoolmarm who poisons wells and sets fires.
In the late 1970s, Moreau directed two movies that received critical acclaim for their thoughtful portrayal of women’s lives — “Lumiere” (1976) and “The Adolescent” (1979). But she soon returned to her career as an actress on film and stage, driving herself forward through bouts of depression.
She made a triumphant world tour in the late 1980s in “Le Recit de la Servante Zerline,” a nearly two-hour monologue about the complicated life of a maid. The play brought renewed demand among movie directors as varied as Wim Wenders (“Until the End of the World,” 1991), Ismail Merchant (“The Proprietor,” 1996) and Amos Gitai (“One Day You’ll Understand,” 2008), among many others.
Moreau’s marriages to actor and screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and film director William Friedkin ended in divorce. She had a son, Jerome, from her first marriage. A list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed. The French president’s office announced the death but did not disclose further details.
Moreau was romantically linked at times to Malle, Cardin and Richardson. She seldom lacked for male companionship, once explaining in the sort of epigram that became her trademark in interviews, “Age does not protect you from love, but love, to some extent, protects you from age.”
In an unceasing career, Moreau imbued her craft with an intuitive grasp of character and sustained intensity.
“How annoyed I get to hear people speak of ‘the profession of acting,’” she once told Time. “The only thing worse is when they say, ‘You’re a real pro.’ Acting is not a profession at all; it’s a way of living — one completes the other.
“What an actor needs is a sense of involvement, an unconscious familiarity with his role, nothing more than that,” she added. “There’s no point in pursuing the character’s real-life experience. It’s absurd to think you can truly enter it for a tame little week, anyhow. I never study my role at all before the camera starts turning and then pffft! — it begins.”