The French actress Jeanne Moreau died today at the age of 89. Her long career was among the most significant in the history of cinema. Born to an English mother and a French father, Moreau’s career began in the late-1940s in the theater, but she quickly transitioned to film work. The most significant of her roles in the early-1950s was as a dancer and object of affection in Jacques Becker’s gangster classic, Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).
Louis Malle was the first director to understand Moreau’s skills and abilities. With her pouting lips and baggy eyes, she looked as if she was struggling with some great burden, some mammoth difficulty that threatened to consume her. In Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), she walks down rainy Paris streets in search of a lover she assumes has abandoned her. The agony and hurt on her face is compounded by Miles Davis’s sultry score.
Moreau’s greatest film was François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). Moreau plays Catherine, the center of a tempestuous love triangle with the titular characters. Her performance is filled with fiery passion. I consider the film to be a portrait of mental illness, although it’s rarely written about in those terms. Few actors have ever been able to convey the difficulties of living with someone with a mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder. Catherine is vivacious and charming when all is well, and homicidal when at her nadir. It’s an incredible range of emotions, and most actors would be unable to scale those extremes so effortlessly. Besides featuring her best performance, Jules and Jim is Truffaut’s greatest film, both tragic and life-affirming.
Moreau would work again with Truffaut on his Hitchcockian revenge thriller The Bride Wore Black (1968). Nothing about the film’s plot is particularly subtle: she plays a woman whose husband is killed on her wedding day. She sets out to avenge her husband and murder the five men responsible for his death, one by one. (The film was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill). Although it doesn’t have the great psychological depth of Truffaut’s best work, Moreau supplies intriguing complications. When she tracks down the final man, her deceptions backfire, and he falls in love with her. We know how the story must end—the bride will not prematurely end her quest because of him. But Moreau’s own burgeoning feelings for the man and paralyzing indecision make us question those assumptions. The screenplay doesn’t supply these complications—they’re all the result of Moreau’s skills.
Although her greatest performances occurred fairly early in her career, Moreau would continue to make great films with great directors for decades to come. She worked with Orson Welles on his final three fictional feature films, including his late-period masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight (1965). Moreau also appeared in films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Marcel Ophüls (in a rare non-documentary work), Jacques Demy, Joseph Losey, Roger Vadim, Luis Buñuel, John Frankenheimer, Jeanne Renoir, Marguerite Duras, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, François Ozon, and Manoel de Oliveira. It’s a stunning list of directors, and a testament to Moreau’s talent.