Now with blonde hair, now with a dark bob, now with a chignon—her characters were charming and terrifying. And every one of them was resolutely freeby Lauren Elkin / August 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
We lost archetypes this week: first a femme fatale, then a cowboy. But, as with all archetypes, the actress Jeanne Moreau and the playwright Sam Shepard exceeded the expectations placed on them. This was arguably more important for her than for him—it is always tempting, as a woman, to appear just as expected, and to shy away from excess. But Moreau’s access to excess is why we love her.
She was a classic movie star, constantly shape-shifting: now with blonde hair, now with a dark bob, now with a chignon, now soaking wet in the rain. All her characters have an I-don’t-owe-you-anything attitude which sets Moreau apart from other quintessentially French movie stars, like Catherine Deneuve or Brigitte Bardot. Moreau plays a woman who might turn you into the police, or gamble away all your money, or have her boyfriend kill you—or make you drive off the road, killing you both. Her characters are charming and terrifying. And every one of them is resolutely free.
In the beginning of her career, they tried to make her into a Hollywood starlet. There she is next to Jean Gabin in her little Betty Page bangs, trying to look innocent in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954). It is one of her first roles. (They slap her around a lot in this film.) Then in 1956, Louis Malle saw her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Peter Brook directing, and cast her in his first solo film. He gave her some amazing sequences in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) where she nightwalks through Paris, muttering to herself while Miles Davis plays. Like a ghost she walks in the rain, looking for her lover, or anyone who might have seen him—another kind of street haunting than what Virginia Woolf had in mind.
Rare were the directors who, like Jacques Demy, understood her multiplicity. The first and next-to-last shots of Demy’s film Baie des Anges (1963) are wild shots of Jeanne Moreau. In the first, an iris shot widens, catches her briefly as the camera dashes away from her in a backwards tracking shot along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, as Michel Legrand’s impassioned Rachmaninoff-like arpeggios and octaves introduce the film’s main theme. The next-to-last shows her running past some staggered mirrors, appearing and disappearing…