Jeanne Moreau: A Life Lived In Flames

by Ashley Naftule

“The cliche is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.”

It’s a pity that Jeanne Moreau never played Joan of Arc. Who else, after all, best exemplifies that vision of life Moreau articulated in an interview in 2001? A life of ascending into flames.

Moreau would have been an interesting Joan of Arc. Her Joan wouldn’t have been a wide-eyed fanatic or a quiet and composed lamb. Neither mode is her style. Look at her face. That pout, those hollow circles under her eyes, those eyes lasering in on your bullshit. That crooked smirk, letting you know that she knows all your tricks – she’s already seen all the tricks worth doing in this world… hell, she’s invented a few of ’em herself. And that voice, gravelly and full of smoke, letting you know that she’s taking exactly none of your shit. Her Joan would have stared daggers at the sky when they lit her pyre. “You lousy celestial fuck,” Jeanne as Joan would wearily sneer as the flames licked her face, “no wonder all men are useless. They’re made in your image.”

Jeanne Moreau rose into her flames yesterday at the age of 89. She left behind a staggering body of work as a film actress, stage actor, director, and singer. A prolific performer, she was ubiquitous in her prime. You could trace the history of European and American cinema from the 1950s through the ’80s by working your way through her filmography.

Look at all the film greats she worked with:

Truffaut, Louis Malle, Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni,
Fassbinder, Godard, Bunuel, Jacques Demy, Jacques Becker, John Frankeheimer, Jean Renoir, Tsai Ming-liang, Manoel de Oliveira, Wim Wenders, Tony Richardson, Marguerite Duras
… the list goes on and on. It’s even more impressive when you consider that she worked with several of these filmmakers multiple times (how many actors can boast about appearing in MULTIPLE Truffaut, Welles, and Antonioni joints?).

For many people, Moreau became the face of a particular strain of French cinema. She was the ultimate French femme fatale – not just because of her stellar work as a revenge killer in Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. It was Moreau’s downturned face that made her the Mona Lisa of apathy. Even as a young actress, Moreau possessed a profound worldliness in the way she spoke and carried herself. It was like she had already lived an entire lifetime, and had swung back around to do it all over again because she had nothing better to do. Nobody could look less impressed with your crap than Jeanne Moreau.

And who could blame her? Consider her origin story as an actor. She told the Le Figaro newspaper in 2001 that the moment she knew she wanted to become an actress was while seeing a production of Antigone when she was 15. She told her father her ambition; his response was to slap her.

That slap became a part of her work: “It forces you toward excellence. All my life I wanted to prove to my father that I was right.” Jeanne Moreau’s career: possibly one of the longest, greatest “Fuck You, Dad” moments in human history.

Of course Jeanne Moreau’s Joan of Arc would have nothing but contempt for a God that lets her burn: it’s just another slap she has to prove wrong.

Ten Faces of Jeanne Moreau

Offering an “Essential” list of Jeanne Moreau films is a mighty difficulty task. But if I had to pick 10 films that would make an excellent introduction to her work, seek these out.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

Elevator to the Gallows

Jules et Jim

La Notte

Diary of a Chambermaid

The Bride Wore Black

The Immortal Story

The Lovers

Chimes At Midnight

Bay of Angels

Share this post