The story goes that the American entertainment industry ruled the roost and dictated popular culture until The Beatles appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964 and then attention switched to the other side of the Atlantic. There’s a degree of truth in that, but until the Fab Four delved into Victoriana and the rich tapestry of British folk and chamber music, their look and sound was a perfect synthesis of America and Europe; Hamburg made them a band, but Paris gave them a haircut and a continental style unique to the UK. The trio of German art students (including photographer Astrid Kirchherr) who befriended The Beatles in Hamburg were war-babies whose disgust with the actions of their parents’ generation led them to look to Paris for inspiration. And Paris was the place to be at the turn of the 60s.
In the late 50s, a group of critics at the French movie magazine, ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ – including the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol – decided they could make better films than the directors whose work they were reviewing, and once they began doing so they inadvertently created one of the most influential movements in movie history, the Nouvelle Vague. With its stark monochrome cinematography, untested actors, location shooting and documentary-style realism, the Nouvelle Vague (or ‘The New Wave’, as it was known in English), was a dramatic contrast to the majority of Hollywood’s output and inspired the up-and-coming crop of US directors who would shake Tinsel Town at the end of the 60s. It also helped kick-start Britain’s own ‘kitchen sink’ school of cinema.
Along with unknowns such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and Jean-Pierre Léaud – whose careers were established via their roles in classics like ‘A Bout de Souffle’, ‘Une Femme est Une Femme’, and the peerless ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ – emerged an actress whose impact owed a great deal to the Nouvelle Vague, yet transcended it so that she isn’t solely associated with that particular movement and has simply become recognised as one of the premier cinematic stars of her generation. I’m talking about, of course, the great – and now, sadly, late – Jeanne Moreau.
Words such as ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ are bandied about so freely these days that they have achieved the same level of meaninglessness as the tiresomely ubiquitous ‘awesome’; but Jeanne Moreau, who has died at the age of 89, was genuinely legendary and iconic. Her status as such largely stemmed from her role in Truffaut’s 1962 movie, ‘Jules et Jim’. The character she played in it, Catherine, is a free spirit who forms one-third of a love triangle around the outbreak of the First World War; although the film is set half-a-century earlier than when it was made, Catherine embodies the attitude associated with the youth poised to take centre stage in the 60s. It made Moreau an overnight international star.
Predating ‘Jules et Jim’ by three years, however, Moreau had given a remarkably moving and subtle performance in Louis Malle’s ‘Les Amants’, which remains perhaps the most exquisitely romantic movie I’ve ever seen; and it isn’t remotely soppy, just real – the hallmark of French cinema’s golden age. But the worldwide success of ‘Jules et Jim’ opened doors for Moreau that led her to working with the renowned likes of Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Elia Kazan, and Britain’s own Tony Richardson, who became so infatuated with Moreau during the two movies he made with her that he left his wife Vanessa Redgrave for her.
Jeanne Moreau didn’t abandon the cinema of her home country whilst building a career outside of France, however; she may have shared a screen with France’s other international cinematic icon Brigitte Bardot in 1965’s ‘Viva Maria’, but a far more substantial role came in 1974’s ‘Les Valseuses’. In this once-controversial black comedy, she plays a recently released prisoner who is seduced by a couple of hedonistic sexual vagabonds (one of whom is played by a young Gerard Depardieu). What makes her on-screen threesome with the pair relatively unusual even now is the fact that the ménage à trois consists of two men and one woman rather than the standard one man and two women. But it’s a scene that is oddly tender, even if it happens to be followed by one of the most awful methods of suicide to ever befall a character in a movie. Let’s just say a revolver is inserted into a part of the body only a woman could insert it into.
I remember a later role for Moreau in a 1993 BBC TV film called ‘A Foreign Field’, starring alongside Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall, which dealt with the return of WWII veterans to Normandy, one of the last times the wartime generation were portrayed in the present tense. Although surrounded by some considerable acting heavyweights, Moreau’s part was pivotal to the drama, playing a woman two of the male characters had enjoyed romantic assignations with at the time of the D-Day landings. Again, she managed to imbue her performance with both a touching quality that made the viewer care what happened to her, as well as a mischievous aspect that showcased her talent for comedy.
Jeanne Moreau’s film debut was in 1950 – the same year Marlon Brando exploded onto the big screen in ‘The Men’ – and her final appearance was in 2012, just five years ago. Sixty-two years isn’t a bad run for a movie career, and it’s testament to Moreau that she was as good an actress as an old lady as she was when a young woman. She was pretty special and she’ll be missed.
© The Editor