Simone Signoret is a name synonymous with French acting. The most recognised French actress by BAFTA, as well as record-setting in her Oscar win for her role in the kitchen sink classic Room at the Top (1959), Signoret’s career was stringed with achievement. She embodies the daring end of post-war cinema, bringing spark and wit to even the smallest of roles.
She was born on 25 March 1921 in Wiesbaden, Germany to André and Georgette Kaminker. In childhood, her father moved them to Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside Paris due to his job at the League of Nations. Signoret soon found herself moving in Parisian creative circles, exploring the potential of performing during the time of the occupation. She took her mother’s name to hide her Polish Jewish heritage.
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Signoret’s first screen role was in the 1942 film Boléro. Like many of her early roles, it was uncredited, and she went on to feature in a number of films as an extra. It was partly thanks to her marriage to director Yves Allégret in 1944 that she was slowly given roles to match her growing talents. Initially cast in a small role in Les Démons de l’aube (1946), it was in Allégret’s Dédée d’Anvers (1948) that Signoret was finally leading on screen. However, such was her success in the role as a Belgian sex worker that she became somewhat typecast. She found herself playing similar characters throughout her career.
It’s to Signoret’s credit that her performances often bypass the clichéd writing that sometimes typified such characters. Her supporting role as Gisèle in the underrated Back Streets of Paris (1946) is a good example of her ability to lift a simplistic role.
In the 1950s, Signoret’s star rose. Her role in Max Ophuls’ classic La Ronde (1950) started Signoret’s decade well, albeit controversially, playing Léocadie – another prostitute – in a mesmerising adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler play.
It wasn’t all typecasting, however, and she proceeded to play some of the strongest and most complex female characters of the time. As Marie in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or (1952), Signoret excels as the woman troubled by her desires, juggling dangerous relationships with criminals. The image of her in full belle époque styling became one of the most famous of the era.
Her turn to villainy produced equally strong results. She expertly realises Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin in Marcel Carné’s 1953 adaptation, which perhaps inspired her casting two years later in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fiendish thriller Les Diaboliques (1955). As the double-crossing femme fatale of the piece, Nicole, she gives one of the great lucid performances of cold, calculating evil. The film hinges on its twists, and the concealment of them is put almost entirely on Signoret’s shoulders.
Signoret’s star was still in the ascendant as the 1960s approached, with her most celebrated role coming in Jack Clayton’s social-realist love triangle drama Room at the Top. The film was a huge success and brought Signoret her highest acclaim, including the first best actress Oscar that anybody had won for a non-American film. Playing the French teacher in a Yorkshire factory town who has an affair with a young accountant played by Laurence Harvey, her skill in portraying the passion of an older woman came to the fore. Indeed, she was to become one of the most prominent older women of European cinema, refreshing in her honesty about ageing and desire. As she famously quipped: “I got old the way women who aren’t actresses grow old.”
Among her later roles, one of the most striking is her pivotal role as the French resistance righter Mathilde in Jean-Pierre Melville’s gripping wartime thriller Army of Shadows (1969). Yet while Melville’s film has belatedly been recognised in recent years, the film was naively dismissed by the radical critics of the day, at a time when celebrating the French resistance was out of fashion.
The final decade of her career is neglected today, but offers plenty of gems. Her vicious turn in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s Le Chat (1971), an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, is on the par with the best of her 1950s performances, while her warm turn in the same director’s La Veuve Couderc (1971) has echoes of Room at the Top. Meanwhile, her suspicious part in Alain Corneau’s Police Python 357 (1976) allows us to see her working with second husband Yves Montand. The promotional photos of the pair for the film are in themselves an enjoyable window onto their relationship together, which lasted until the end of her life.
Through it all, Signoret became something like the epitome of French screen acting and one of its most indelible figures. One hundred years since her birth, imagining the nation’s cinema without her is nigh on impossible.