One time, many years ago, I spoke to Jeanne Moreau on the phone. I was working for a photographer who was doing a project with her, and he asked me to call her. From the depths of her apartment in Paris, she answered in French, her voice deep and husky.
“‘Allo?” she said.
The rest of the conversation was brief. I was arranging for a car to pick her up, to take her to a recording studio. She was angry that I was bothering her, and made no motions to hide it. For Jeanne Moreau was an icon, and I was a lowly assistant speaking in barely passable French. At the end of our exchange, she hung up without saying goodbye.
“Who is Jeanne Moreau?” I asked my boss, who had been listening to the conversation.
“Who is Jeanne Moreau?!!” He gasped in horror. “I thought that I hired you because you were cultured!”
My boss is Canadian, but he has lived for 20 years in Paris.
“I want you to go home right now, and watch Jules et Jim,” he commanded.
I googled it. “Oof, Truffaut,” I said. “Snoozefest.”
“You’re fired!” he screamed. So I gathered all of my things, and went out to lunch. Two glasses of red wine later, I was back at my desk, making sure that Jeanne Moreau had all things she required in her dressing room for the recording session the next day. The firing thing I invented for effect to make this introduction more interesting.
But I did go home and watch Jules et Jim, which I enjoyed, mostly because of the scenes in which Jeanne Moreau—her bodice clad in a sweet little sailor-striped cowl neck sweater—sings to her two lovers, both of whom are ripped apart by her many infidelities.
At the time, I didn’t think Jeanne Moreau was much to look at, especially in comparison with her contemporaries (if she would deign to be placed in such company)—Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, and Anna Karina, to name the best. All were, in some way or another, muses for a Nouvelle Vague, otherwise known as the movement to make films that are just inaccessible enough to a general audience that anyone who admits that they don’t really like them seems like a fool in well-heeled company. For those of you who speak proper English, I am referring to the French New Wave.
Looking at pictures of Jeanne Moreau today, however, I find my respect for her beauty has increased. In fact, I think that I was a fool not recognizing it in the first place.
For if Brigitte Bardot is comparable to someone like Lindsay Lohan before she fucked up her life, and Catherine Deneuve is an ice queen like Nicole Kidman, then Jeanne Moreau is Cate Blanchett plus French intrigue—elegant, cool, brilliant, beautiful, and rooted in the tradition of theater.
Born in 1929 to a French father, and an English mother, Jeanne Moreau has spent much of her life in Paris. After deciding to pursue acting at a young age (blah blah), she started auditioning for film roles. At first, she was told that she wasn’t beautiful enough, in part because she didn’t like to wear make-up. Or so her fan sites say.
But then she met up with Louise Malle, who cast her in Elevator to the Gallows (1958), a New Wave film noir. It was a success, and thus, a bare-faced, cool-tempered, svelte-limbed muse was born.
Let’s just say that among a certain set of “smart” directors, Jeanne Moreau flourished. She worked with Francois Truffaut, with Luis Buñuel, with Michelangelo Antonioni. Osron Welles named her the best actress he had ever seen.
All in all, she acted in over 100 movies. I’ll let you do the Google legwork yourself on that one.
My favorite movie that she ever appeared in was Ever After (1998), which was a re-telling of Cinderella starring Dougray Scott, Drew Barrymore, and Angelica Huston. In it, she played the old lady who told a recently awoken Cinderella that she was actually her great-great-great grandmother.
I’m not even kidding. I own that movie on DVD.
Jeanne Moreau never became a mainstream Hollywood star, probably because, let’s be honest, she doesn’t speak English very well. But in France, she’s practically as bigtime as fucking Guy Debord or Bernard-Henri Lévy or Roland Barthés or Carla Bruni. Or the fucking Eiffel Tower. Or perhaps even Gerard Depardieu.
I could probably wax poetic about Jeanne Moreau for at least two more paragraphs, but I couldn’t say anything more brilliant than Patti Smith, who really sums up Moreau’s intrigue in a piece she did about the actress for “High Times” in 1977.
Jeanne Moreau is really something. There’s this scene where she’s like a chaste schoolteacher superficially, but inside she’s like a barbed wire fence on fire. There’s like this burly Italian Burt Lancaster who walks through the fields with a big gold St. Christopher medal on his chest and his shirt open, and he’s reeking of the wine fields, and he’s got a chain saw because he’s a lumberjack — and there’s all this tension because you know they’re gonna do it and when they do, they don’t let you down.
Whey they fuck it’s so heavy. It’s out in the field. He rips off her dress and she’s like an instant animal. He makes crawl through the field barking like a dog and she’s got this chiffon dress on, which he rips to shreds.
She’s so great. To me, the way she conquers a guy … I’m really studying Jeanne Moreau. If I turn out like Jeanne Moreau when I grow up I couldn’t ask for anything more. She’s so self-contained. She could start a forest fire. She came to my concert in France. I was so honored I didn’t even talk to her.
I’d like Jeanne Moreau to cut me down to size, ‘cuz in the process of being cut down to size by her I’d really start to grow. She’s great. Anna Magnani was great. Piaf was great. They were so much emotion. Like Janis Joplin — she had so much too — but Jeanne Moreau, she’s got brains. It’s like she’s got an intellect in her movement.
Then she sold this guy down the river. Like they fucked for two days in thunder and lightning, and the sky was just totally opening up, the fields were on fire, the whole world was going berserk — and they were just fucking right through it all. There was racial strife and poverty and people killing each other and everything was in flames, and they were still fucking.
And then he says at the end — he’s so stupid — he’s in love with her so he’s trying to be nice, but he fucks up and says, “I’ll be leavin’ tomorrow.” He’s an Italian and he’s not accepted in this French village. He’s so stupid. You don’t tell a woman you’re leaving her after you fuck her for two days. If you are, you split fast, ‘cuz else you’re gonna die.
So she runs off and walks into town all fucked up, like she’s a chaste schoolteacher with a bun and everything. She’s like Jeanne Moreau, she’s like a lioness and she comes in with her chiffon dress all blood and filth and she’s like real satisfied and they see her and the women all get hysterical. She’s like the symbol of purity, their Madonna, Marianne Faithful, and they can’t believe she’s been so defiled. “Was it the Italian? Was it, was it?” She looks at them and she goes “Oui.” She says oui so great it’s like “yeah” — in fact I coulda sworn she said “yeah.”
They killed the guy with sledge hammers, pitchforks and stuff, but that’s another story. Thing was, after she sold him up the river, she was just exhausted from being fucked so great in the rain and lightning.
I’ve always been vaguely aware of Patti Smith’s talents as a writer, but after reading this, I will forever worship at her feet. I’m also never writing while not stoned on marijuana ever again.
For you, Jeanne Moreau. For scaring the everloving shit out of me when I had to call you on the phone.
For being of the generation of women who changed the way that our gender was viewed in the movies. For bringing intelligence and depth to your roles, along with sexual freedom.
For all of your scenes in bathtubs.
For you and Monica Vitti.
For smoking cigarettes in your old age, and beyond, I wish you the best of health, Jeanne Moreau, you’re my icon of the week.