Jeanne Moreau was loved by two men onscreen and by millions more who sat in the dark. One third of the cinema’s ultimate love triangle, in Francois Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” (which, let’s admit, really ought to have been called “Catherine” after her character), Moreau was a face of not only the French New Wave, but a revolution in European art cinema at large, working with such directors as Michelangelo Antonioni (“La notte”) and Luis Buñuel (“Diary of a Chambermaid”).
Much has been written about how these directors transformed the course of cinema, but they couldn’t have done it without their stars — every bit as vital to modern performance as the Method actors were almost a decade earlier in the United States. Actresses like Moreau embodied a new kind of freedom, both in the spontaneous, seemingly unpredictable style of their performances and in the liberated characters they played.
In “Jules et Jim,” for example, the film baldly objectified Moreau, likening her to a marble statue in the film (the reason the two men fall for her), but it took seriously her complex and at times contradictory emotional side. Instead of judging her, the movie went so far as to celebrate Catherine’s rejection of monogamy and other social conventions. (Six years later, Truffaut took things further, casting Moreau as a vengeful widow who systematically tracks and kills five men in “The Bride Wore Black.”)
Contemporaries with such stars as Jean Seberg and Anna Karina, Moreau may well have been the best actress of her generation — though others had the edge in glamour. She was both modern enough to adapt to the visionary new directors of her era and a stage-trained actress capable of bringing a level of emotional credibility to the work of more classically minded directors, as in Louis Malle’s “The Elevator to the Gallows,” or in her most devastating role, as a compulsive gambler in Jacques Demy’s “Bay of Angels.”
Other actors may have won Oscars for their portrayals of self-destructive characters, but no performance gets as deep into the psychosis of addiction as Moreau does in that film. It’s there in her bones, and every gesture reinforces the tragic fact that she’s drawn to the thrill of losing everything. You can see Moreau in decades more movies, but more importantly, her spirit appears in other actresses’ work. “Bonnie and Clyde” may have been set in the 1930s, but the way Faye Dunaway carries herself — heck, the way she smokes a cigar — is all Jeanne Moreau, owning the screen for the decade before that film was shot.