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 in an almost supernatural jump cut, only without the cutting. The establishing shot subsumes her into the drama and romance of the Côte d’Azur, where you can become a millionaire overnight if you pick the right numbers.
That next-to-last one, though, tells us more about Moreau than any close-up ever could: she is never where we think she is; she forever passes in and out of our view. Even in a close-up, we can’t take all of her in at once; she’s too much, too fascinating, too unusual. That top lip, exposed. The bags under her eyes, like she’s been awake her whole life. That disdainful expression, those hooded eyes, something animalistic about the way her mouth moves when she talks, something in the jut of the chin. She is so watchable because we never really see her.
So here she is in Nice, blowsy and blonde, playing the tables, dressed all in white. A cigarette dangling from her mouth, a hand pushes back her candy-floss hair: Marilyn Monroe but more savage. But Marilyn’s not the only important reference here—her name, in this film, is Jackie. The male lead (he is Jean: John and Jackie), tells her she’s like a character in an American novel. Jean takes a smart approach to gambling all the way through the film; when his money’s running low, he wants to leave.
But Jackie is reckless, capable of winning and losing a million in a night, and going back for more. She’s all in, every time. When she enters a casino it’s like entering a church, she tells Jean. He laughs, and she’s outraged. “This passion that allows me to live—why would I deny myself that? In the name of who, or what? For what morality? I’m free! I owe nothing to anyone.”
The film doesn’t hide it—it is clear she has a real gambling problem. But she lives it like some kind of existentialist heroine: as long as she can make the choice to gamble her last 5,000 francs, she’s free. Moreau doesn’t play her like a theory, or a concept; she plays her like a real woman, someone who doesn’t understand her own impulses, who makes herself vulnerable, who’s sometimes joyful, sometimes genuinely afraid. It’s quitte ou double for Jackie, as they say in French: double or nothing.
Like her willful, daring characters, Moreau accepted no half measures. Interviewed by Marguerite Duras in 1965 about what she might want to do next, having just starred alongside Brigitte Bardot in the Louis Malle musical Viva Maria!, she replied: “I want to do something more dangerous.”