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‘My life feeds my art, and my art feeds my life’: French acting legend Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017)

The symbol of the French New Wave died in Paris at the age of 89.

American director Orson Welles called her “the greatest actress in the world”. She worked with some of the most iconic filmmakers, including Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jacques Demy and Michelangelo Antonioni. She won a BAFTA for best foreign actress in 1967 and two César awards in 1988 and 1992 and worked for eight decades. Jeanne Moreau, the icon of the French New Wave, died on Monday, aged 89.

Born in Paris on January 23, 1928, Moreau began her career in theatre. At 20, she joined the repertory theatre La Comedie Francaise (she was the youngest performer). It was in a theatrical production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Peter Brook, that the young Moreau was spotted by French director Louis Malle, who later cast her in four films, beginning with his feature debut Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Their second collaboration The Lovers (1958) was banned in a few countries for perceived obscenity. The movie launched Moreau’s career and cemented her as international sex symbol.

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Elevator to the Gallows (1958).

Moreau’s alluring beauty and mystique contributed to the dreamlike quality of Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). She embodied the emotionally distant character, and the acting felt completely natural. “To me, acting is a calling, a way of life more than a career,” she told Criterion. “My life feeds my art, and my art feeds my life. I didn’t want the destiny of a regular girl.”

La Notte (1961).
La Notte (1961).

Her most famous role came four years later in French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. For better or worse, Moreau’s character Catherine, who is caught between two friends, was often confused with her real self.

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Jules et Jim.

In a 2006 interview, the actor reflected on her collaboration with young filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s. “I represented for them a sort of fantasy of what woman was, and they thought I could carry the burden,” she said.

Moreau was Welles’s on-screen collaborator, appearing in The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965), and his sole colour film The Immortal Story (1968). Welles supported Moreau when she branched into direction, and made three films and made her debut with 1976’s Lumiere.

Moreau, who continued acting into her eighties, did not live in the past. “Nostalgia for what? Nostalgia is when you want things to stay the same. I know so many people staying in the same place,” she told The Guardian in a 2001 interview. “And I think, my God, look at them! They’re dead before they die. That’s a terrible risk. Living is risking.”

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Time To Leave (2005).

One of her most memorable later roles was in François Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005). She was initially hesitant to play the role. “I’d never played one before because usually they’re so conventional,” Moreau said. “A grandmother is not a grandmother - what does that mean? She was a child, a young girl, a lover, a wife, a mother. A human being is all that. If you take somebody and say, ‘Oh, she’s just a grandmother,’ you’re fucking wrong!”

Moreau and Ozon worked on the character’s backstory, and even though the eventual role was only 10 minutes, it was the film’s most memorable. It showed that even late into her career, Moreau had the capability to be endlessly mysterious, with eyes that spoke of many lived lives.

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