Ascenseur au Pantheon du Cinema: Jeanne Moreau est morte — Long live Jeanne Moreau

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Jeanne Moreau, the embodiment of French film and muse to the giants of French and World cinema for seven decades, including Francois Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”), Louis Malle (“Ascenseur pour l’echaffaud”), Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel and countless others, was found dead in her Paris apartment this morning by her maid, French radio reported. Jeanne Moreau was 89 years old.

After making her theatrical debut at Jean Vilar’s Festival d’Avignon in 1947 and subsequently joining the Comedie Francaise before leaving it for Vilar’s new and pioneering Theatre National Populaire in 1951, Moreau never really left the French stage or screen, continuing to be a formidable presence with her distinctive gravelly voice well into the current decade.

“My voice changed with the years and the cigarettes, but my voice is like that,” Moreau said. “One should never take advantage of one’s tools; at that instant one becomes manipulative. Even with men, I never played the coquette.”

“She’s an absolute monument,” declared the actor Pierre Arditti, speaking today on French public radio. “The very model of what an actor must make of her metier. She’s the very example, that is to say that she was always conscious of her art; when it came to playing someone else, she always mined herself.”

“In a certain manor, she incarnated the modern woman even before the explosion of feminism,” explained Eve Beton, a cinema commentator for French public radio, adding, “This was a woman who loved words; her home was packed with books.” Among other signature moments, Beton singled out Moreau’s poignant portrayal of an ex-convict in Bertrand Blier’s 1974 “Les Valseuses,” which made stars of Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere, as two incorrigible youth on a rampage through France. “They encounter this woman as she’s being let out of prison, they sleep with her, and the next morning she commits suicide.” Moreau’s brief appearance was so moving that it eclipsed that of an icon of a younger generation whom the two seduce earlier in the film: Isabelle Huppert.

It was one of many roles in which Moreau revealed what Serge Toubiana, the former director of the Cinematheque Francaise, described as her strong sense of a ‘sovereign self.’ “She had such a taste for liberty,” Toubiana said, “that she revolutionized the very concept of what it meant to be a star. I rarely encountered such an independent personality. Truffaut said of her, in ‘Jules and Jim,’ ‘She is prestigious.'” For Orson Welles, who directed Moreau in his 1962 “The Trial” after Kafka, Toubiana said, she “incarnated the French language, the French panache.”

While it was not her debut film — among other roles, she’d already held her own opposite French film legend Jean Gabin (France’s answer to Humphrey Bogart) in Jacques Decker’s 1954 Paris polaire “Touchez pas au Grisbi” — the film which announced Moreau’s arrival, Toubiana remembered, was Louis Malle’s 1957 “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” when, to the melancholy trumpet notes of Miles Davis, she walked the Paris streets, sans make-up (Moreau didn’t need any to make an indelible impression), in search of her man.

Also speaking on French public radio this afternoon, Jean-Claude Carrier, who adapted the scenario for Luis Bunuel’s 1964 “Diary of a Chamber Maid,” recalled, “One day Jeanne came to see me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with Luis. He’s not telling me anything. I have the impression that he doesn’t like what I’m doing.” When Carrier reported the remark to the director, Bunuel replied, “What do you want me to tell her? It’s she who’s teaching me things about the character.”

If Toubiana and others pointed to Moreau’s audacity, for the actress it was an audacity she put to the service of the directors with whom she worked in over 130 films. “What’s interesting,” she said in a recent interview, “is to have commenced in 1948 and have told stories in a different way…. with the Nouvelle Vague, and after, it changed again. In fact these are always the same stories, but told in a different manner. And it’s good to allow a young woman or young man to be conscious, and to have the audacity to express his desire and not be timorous. One should never submit.”

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