Jeanne Moreau: 10 essential films

Our selection of some of the finest movies and performances by the iconic French actor Jeanne Moreau.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Born on 23 January 1928 to a French bartender and a Tiller Girl dancer from Oldham, Jeanne Moreau had a luminus career that lasted for 70 years. An icon of the French New Wave, she helped redefine star quality with a subtle blend of self-contained intellect and sensual femme fatality that prompted Patti Smith to compare her to “a barbed wire fence on fire”. She has worked with many of cinema’s leading directors, with Orson Welles declaring her “the greatest actress in the world”.

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Director Louis Malle

The first inklings of a seismic cinematic shift are evident as Jeanne Moreau distractedly wanders along the Champs-Elysées in this classic thriller. As director Louis Malle breaks with tradition by filming in natural light and with a mobile camera (planted in a pram), Moreau’s character Florence is wondering whether her ex-paratrooper lover (Maurice Ronet) has carried out their planned murder of her wealthy husband – or simply abandoned her. Gone are the pride and passion of the modishly modern and fiercely independent woman fashioned from the sketchy characterisation in Noël Calef’s novel. In their place comes a haunted look of frantic anxiety, which Henri Decaë’s monochrome camera captures in the glow of the chic storefronts, with the skittishly moody accompaniment of Miles Davis’s improvised jazz score.

Les Amants (1958)

Director Louis Malle

Les Amants (1958)

“I know it when I see it,” declared Justice Potter Stewart in dismissing the claim that Louis Malle’s depiction of female sexual pleasure constituted pornography. From the moment Moreau won a special prize at the Venice Film Festival, her steamy tryst with younger lover Jean-Marc Bory had shocked those not exhilarated by its liberating acceptance of a woman’s right to enjoy love-making. Cementing Moreau’s status as a cerebral sex symbol, this satire on bourgeois mores seems touchingly chaste six decades on. But Moreau continues to captivate as her latter-day Madame Bovary drifts between Bory’s enamoured archaeologist, distracted spouse Alain Cuny and casual fling José Luis de Villallonga.

La notte (1961)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

La notte (1961)

Fresh from winning the best actress award at Cannes for Peter Brook’s Moderato Cantabile (1960), Moreau gives another memorable performance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Golden Bear-winning feminist treatise on marital ennui. Bored with the enviable lifestyle she shares with novelist husband Marcello Mastroianni, Moreau saunters through the Milanese suburbs where they had savoured newlywed bliss. Later, she flirts half-heartedly with house-party guest Giorgio Negro, before succumbing at dawn to Mastroianni’s advances in a golf course bunker. Cultured, glamorous and complex, Moreau epitomises the worldly ‘new woman’, even though she’s painfully aware of the ensnaring vacuousness of her existence.

Jules et Jim (1962)

Director François Truffaut

Jules et Jim (1961)

Although what the director himself called a “subversive film of total sweetness” represents a masterclass in French New Wave technique, François Truffaut’s adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s 1953 novel depends heavily on the luminous femininity of Moreau, as her character Catherine embarks upon a dangerous liaison with bohemian best friends Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). Inquisitive, spontaneous, iconoclastic and capricious, the free-spirited Moreau refuses to be understood, as she slips between affection and cruelty in her bid to live for a moment forever on the verge of being snatched away. As Truffaut wrote: “Her qualities as an actress and as a woman made Catherine real before our eyes, made her plausible, crazy, possessive, passionate, but above all adorable.”

La Baie des Anges (1963)

Director Jacques Demy

La Baie des Anges (1962)

In many ways, Moreau’s character in Jacques Demy’s study of gambling addiction is a descendant of Catherine in Jules et Jim. With dark roots showing through her platinum blonde hair and the contrasting shades of her outfits matching her swinging moods, Jackie Demaistre seems superficial and cheap as she abandons her husband and children to satiate her craving for excitement and success. But she is also quick-witted, impulsive, predatory and tenacious. She clings to Riviera casino novice Claude Mann through good times and bad with a mix of desperation, expectation and affection, which makes her climactic decision all the more plucky and poignant.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Director Luis Buñuel

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

“When she walks,” Luis Buñuel wrote of Moreau in his 1983 autobiography, My Last Breath, “her foot trembles just a bit on its high heel, suggesting a certain tension and instability.” Yet the eponymous domestic never misses a step in this scathing adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, even when she’s heading in completely the wrong direction. Serving as Buñuel’s proxy, Célestine witnesses the perversity, hypocrisy, bigotry and brutality of her superiors and peers on a 1930s Normandy estate. However, not only does she prove to be erroneously judgemental, but she also turns out to be a fascistic snob – and Moreau plays her with such disdainful hauteur that she resembles a Gallic Bette Davis.

Viva Maria! (1965)

Director Louis Malle

Viva Maria! (1965)

Demonstrating her rarely flexed versatility, Moreau is Jane Russell to Brigitte Bardot’s Marilyn Monroe in this subversive musical romp whose political subtext incurred the wrath of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. Taking Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954) as a model, Louis Malle seeks to parody the buddy movie while taking pot shots at the Catholic church, the bourgeoisie and the imperial military mindset. Abetting Malle in his bid to meld Howard Hawks and Vincente Minnelli, Moreau proves a capable chanteuse as her wandering vaudevillian accidentally becomes a stripping sensation in cahoots with Bardot’s Fenian firebrand. Contemporary audiences missed the point, but this is audaciously revisionist and riotous fun.

Mademoiselle (1966)

Director Tony Richardson

Mademoiselle (1966)

Dismissed on its release as a Freudian farrago, Tony Richardson’s explicit take on a screenplay Jean Genet had written as a wedding present for Anouk Aimée scandalised Cannes before bombing at the box office. But the story of a provincial schoolteacher whose outward propriety hides a seething sexual frustration, which manifests itself in acts of destructive ferocity, paved the way for many an Isabelle Huppert picture. Moreau hated the character and the discomfort of a shoot that required her to cavort in a muddy field with Italian woodsman Ettore Manni. But she recognised the potency of the scenario, and her performance has a monstrous intensity that remains unsettling.

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Director François Truffaut

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Having declined Mike Nichols’s invitation to play Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967), Moreau reunited with François Truffaut in this homage to Alfred Hitchcock, which was adapted from a novel that Cornell Woolrich had written under the pseudonym William Irish. As the widow bumping off the quintet responsible for her groom’s demise, Moreau eschews tragedy and heeds Truffaut’s advice to play the character “like a skilled worker with a job to do, conscientious and obstinate”. Wearing black-and-white costumes fashioned by ex-lover Pierre Cardin, Moreau impressed Hitchcock, who wished she had given poison victim Michel Bouquet a pillow “so that he could die with more comfort”.

The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991)

Director Laurent Heynemann

 The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991)

Having directed Lumière (1976) and L’Adolescente (1979), Moreau started taking scene-stealing character roles in provocative pictures like Les Valseuses (1974) and Querelle (1982). Moreover, following nominations for Le Paltoquet (1986) and Le Miraculé (1987), she finally won a César for her impishly imperious performance in Laurent Heynemann’s deceptively poignant caper. Trading insults with longtime partner in crime Michel Serrault, Moreau exudes haughty lust and geriatric regret as she tilts her cap at apprentice Luc Thuillier, while fleecing wealthy dupes in Guadeloupe and on the Riviera. The plot twists inconsequentially, but it serves admirably to showcase the effortless elegance, disdain for vanity and artistic intuition that make Moreau unique.

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