She walked in beauty, like the night, through the shadows of Parisian streets and the insolent stares of passers-by, accompanied by the lonesome sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet, into the pages of film history in 1958. And decades later, into the imagination of a teenaged cinephile watching a scratchy video of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle, 1958) in a middle-class living room in Calcutta in the late 1980s.
Later, I would come to know that this was Jeanne Moreau’s breakthrough film role at the age of 29, after a distinguished career on stage and mostly unremarkable parts in around 20 films. The woman subsequently celebrated as the luminous “face” of the French New Wave was deemed in the mid-1950s to be not photogenic enough for the screen without the aid of heavy make-up and artificial lighting. Neither of these did justice to her gift for naturalistic acting or to the striking features of her face – the elegant bone-structure; the deep-set eyes with their unflinching gaze and shadows underneath; the sensual yet melancholic mouth, downturned at the corners but capable of suddenly twisting into a radiant smile; and the ability to register subtle emotional shifts while retaining an element of indecipherability.
It was Malle who first realised the cinematic potential of Moreau’s expressive yet enigmatic face, using minimalist make-up and available light (like from street lamps and shop windows) in Ascenseur and Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958) to reveal its haunting mix of elegance, sensuality, sadness and fierce intelligence.
In 1962, her face would become the focus of international cinephilia as Moreau emerged as an icon of the French New Wave – its ethos of authenticity and rebellion – through her role as Catherine, a free spirit at the centre of a romantic triangle in Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Just as the best friends of the film’s title projected their desires onto the capricious Catherine, some of the leading male directors of the times – Truffaut, Malle, Luis Buñuel, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Jacques Demy, Tony Richardson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – found a vehicle for their cinematic visions in Moreau’s ability to combine authenticity with mystery, sensuality with seriousness, bourgeois chic with a rebellious attitude and consummate performances with an impression of “non-acting.” Most were in awe of her (Orson Welles once described her as “the greatest actress in the world”). Quite a few became her lovers as well.
“Making films,” Moreau told Cahiers du Cinema in 1965, “is no longer a way of acting, it is a way of life.” She would come to be seen as the grande dame of French cinema, though she hated the term; direct two well-regarded films; and continue to act, fascinate and defy convention – in life and on screen – well into her 80s. When she died on July 31, 2017 at the age of 89, French President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to her as a “free spirit” who “embodied cinema” and “always rebelled against the established order.”
When I first saw Ascenseur or Jules et Jim, I knew little of all this. I was just transfixed by the visual allure of Moreau’s face and persona, and by the sense she conveyed of darkness smouldering into light.
However, falling under Moreau’s spell also meant falling under the spell of a particular kind of cinema, where images not only carried the narrative but could also transcend it or move you away from it.
In that sequence from Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, for instance, Florence Carala, the character played by Moreau, is searching for her lover with whom she has plotted to kill her husband. While shades of anxiety and apprehension flit across her face, you can’t but notice the self-possession with which she takes ownership of the streets and the night, moving through these on her own terms, at a pace dictated by her own thoughts. What stays with you is a luminous memory of a woman walking through a city at night as if it belonged to her: at once perfectly aware and coolly dismissive of the glances that tried to suggest otherwise or to turn her into an object of desire or curiosity.
Moreau seemed to be a cooler, superior version of the noir heroes who swaggered through the night-blighted landscape of the 1940s and 1950s American films my father had introduced me to. Her face, her bearing, her gait all suggested a similar mixture of toughness and vulnerability – but one laced with a sang-froid that put masculine bluster in its (somewhat childish) place. To use an anachronism, you could say that she was the grandmother of swag. She came to embody swag long before the term came into vogue but her stylish confidence and poise owed little to stereotypical male swagger.
For a quietly tomboyish teenager in 1980s Calcutta, Moreau’s version of femininity presented an intriguing alternative to locally-available paradigms, which ranged from the starchy sternness of the imperious Suchitra Mitra (one of the doyennes of Rabindra sangeet, whose spirited style of singing often made you feel that you should be sitting up straight and thinking lofty thoughts) to the silken nyakami (an untranslatable Bengali word used to denote a captivating – and/or infuriating – blend of coyness, flirtatiousness and feminine guile) of the uptown heroines of Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s novels. It was also quite different from the exported models of femininity I encountered through films at that time: the gamine charm of Audrey Hepburn or Jean Seberg, the glossy glamour of Catherine Deneuve or Grace Kelly and the overt sexual appeal of Brigitte Bardot or Marilyn Monroe.
Neither the ethereal gamine nor the voluptuous femme fatale, Moreau epitomised a certain aloof, cerebral sensuality – evoked through her face and her voice rather than through her body – that inspired not just lust but awe. As a male friend who shared my fascination with Moreau once said, she could make your blood turn to ice just with a look or an arch of her eyebrow.
Much has been made of Moreau as “the thinking man’s femme fatale” or “art-house love goddess”, but these labels fail to capture an important facet of her screen persona (not to mention the range of her appeal). There was something of an elegant assassin about her, a quality that was not at odds with her femininity but an inextricable part of it. Truffaut was one of the directors who picked up on this. He cast her in La mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black, a 1968 film apparently designed as a tribute to Moreau) as a bride who loses her husband to a sniper’s bullet on her wedding day and proceeds to hunt down and kill the men responsible for the murder, one by one, with the chilling efficiency of a professional who uses her femininity as a weapon. Decades later, this is precisely what Moreau’s character in the cult film La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1991) – a somewhat diabolical godmother brought in to train the young Nikita as a vicious government assassin – teaches her pupil: “two things that have no limit – femininity and the means of taking advantage of it.”
Of course, it is undeniable that many of Moreau’s iconic roles reflect a “patriarchal culture’s love of beautiful but deadly or damaged women” (Ginette Vincendeau) and equation of female power with sexual manipulation. She was repeatedly cast as a scheming seductress or a cold-hearted enigma who often came to a bad end. However, the power of Moreau’s performances could not be contained within the frames of male fantasies, sexist adulation or misogynistic narratives. She inhabited the role of the femme fatale with a certain hauteur and a nonchalance that always gave the impression that she was on the verge of walking into a very different film, a film of your imagination.
Manishita Dass teaches film studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is writing a book about the IPTA movement’s impact on Indian cinema.