In truth, I know her face better than the many films she appeared in. During her 1960s heyday, Jeanne Moreau, perhaps better than anyone, embodied that French ‘cool’ that many desired, but only a few attained. Her looks were by no means conventional, and during the research for this, I have read her described as ‘Jolie-laide’ which basically translates as ‘pretty and ugly.’ Harsh I thought. Well, whatever she had, she had it by the barrel load and then some. She herself was quite sanguine about the whole thing…
‘My face has changed with the years and has enough history in it to give audiences something to work with…’
I first became aware of her from the film ‘Ascenour pour l’echafaud’ (‘Elevator to the Gallows’) but not from seeing in at a cinema, but because, I had bought the films soundtrack by Miles Davis, a few weeks earlier in Ray’s Jazz Shop. The iconic photo of her lifting her hair away from her ear, as Miles blew his trumpet into it, was a defining one on so many levels. Personally for me, I was soon checking out more French new wave films, such as ‘A Bout de Souffle’ directed by Jean-Luc Godard from 1960 and ‘Jules et Jim’ in which Moreau stars, from 1962.
She was born in Montmartre, Paris in January 1928 to an English mother Katherine – a one-time Tiller girl, who then danced at the Folies Bergère – and Anatole, a café/restaurant owner. They spilt during World War Two, with Jeanne going to live with her mother. Having lost all interest in schooling, she made her debut on the French stage in 1947 and by her twenties was the leading actress in her theatrical company.
‘That (theatre) was passion. Being in the audience I felt, even the first time, that my place wasn’t there in the dark. I didn’t feel like being the one who just watches. I wasn’t born for obscurity. I knew at once I wanted to be an actress. It was not a money or a fame thing but an escape from real life.’
Within two years by 1949, she took small parts in films, though the stage was her first love. That all changed with the success of the aforementioned ‘Elevator to the Gallows’ in 1958, directed by Louis Malle and from there on she went on work with the new generation of French film makers with ‘Jules et Jim’ finding her international fame.
Jeanne in her time, went on to work with many of the great directors, including Antonioni, Wim Wenders, Bunuel, Roger Vadim, Elia Kazan, Fassbinder and Orson Welles, who called her ‘The greatest actress in the world.’
Other film roles of hers that I’d recommend, include ‘ Les Aments’ ‘Viva Maria’ and ‘Seven Days and Seven Nights.’
Proving her all round skills on the film ‘Lumiere’ in 1976, she worked as its writer, producer and director, as well as starring in it.
She was married twice, first to director Jean Louis Richard, the father of her son Jerome and then to the American director William Friedkin who was responsible for ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection’ among other films. Moreau also had many lovers over the years, including Tony Richardson, who left Vanessa Redgrave for her, Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Miles Davis and Pierre Cardin, who designed many of ther outfits for screen and the street. As the lady herself said…’Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.’
It is said she was both languid and fiery, essentially English and French at the very same time, complete with a very a sharp mind.
‘People – especially women – worry so much about ageing,’ she said when she was in her 70s. ‘But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.’
Jeanne Moraeu died aged 89 in 2017.
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