Monday, July 31, 2017

On s'est connus: Jeanne Moreau

I think of this as the iconic Moreau look. Bare face, cat eyes, unfussy hair, and the plainest little black dress.
Sometime in my teens (was it when I started studying French in college?), my mom decided we needed to watch Jules and Jim. Mom said she'd seen it years earlier but "the only thing I remember about it is that she sings a little song with a guitar."

"She" was Jeanne Moreau, of course, and the song was "Le Tourbillon," a perfect little grace note of suspended time in the middle of this perfect, daring, how-the-fuck-did-Truffaut-pull-this-off-before-he-was-thirty film.

I think of this as my introduction to Jeanne Moreau, though I guess technically I'd seen her as the old lady in the frame story of Ever After, her distinctive voice grown gravelly with time and lending a gravitas to the film's final lines that you don't often find in children's fairy-tale films.

But in the years to come, she became my favorite French actress. She was intense and sexy and had a piercing kind of intelligence. She was never an ingenue (the early-career glossy publicity photos where she tries to look like a '50s ingenue are kind of hilarious). She was always a fully grown, if petite, woman who needed the rougher edges of the French New Wave, handheld cameras and minimal makeup and intelligent scripts and complex characters. She did her best work after she was thirty. She had Resting Sad Face (like me). She had a tart little voice, like green apples, and even recorded some other jazz-pop songs besides "Le Tourbillon." The Lovers, a movie she made in 1958 that included a nude love scene, eventually prompted the famous U.S. Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart ruled "That's not obscene, I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it." She was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. (Although, as praiseworthy as that is, it's also kind of shameful that it took until 2001 to break that glass ceiling.) She was Maggie the Cat in the French premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and can you even imagine?

I watch her movies and I want to take up smoking and wander around cities at night being intense and brooding and melancholy and restless and dissatisfied. One thing I think we don't talk about enough is how there are a lot of male stars who embody a disaffected, brooding quality, but among women, there's pretty much only Jeanne Moreau. Women, too, sometimes want to be romantic existentialists. Women, too, want film-star icons who were uncompromising and iconoclastic, lonely and proud.

I did feel a physical shock on reading the news that she died but, if I take a step back, I mean... she was 89. She worked with the best filmmakers of her era. She smoked like a chimney and made it to the end of her ninth decade on Earth. I sang "Le tourbillon" in the shower this morning. RIP et adieu, Mme Moreau.