Yielding to the demands of biology, male film critics can’t resist encomia to actresses. I understand — the camera is supposed to capture the allure of figures who become less human because a screen divides us. From the start Jeanne Moreau mesmerized audiences with a worldliness that made her whole in a way most screen personalities aren’t. If she was once an adolescent, she didn’t show it. Four days ago, writing about her director and lover Francois Truffaut, I observed that as the apex of the love triangle in Jules et Jim she was “too alert an actress to submit to the hooey.” Truffaut’s script called for a child-woman who knows not what she does but is brilliant while doing so — Zelda Fitzgerald as a songwriter. Much better is 1963’s Bay of Angels, a Jacques Demy masterpiece in which her compulsive gambler is caught in a chic, gruesome danse macabre, indifferent to the Riviera, maternity, to desire, to life (so many of Moreau’s characters shun motherhood).
Directors were besotted with how she moved. The centerpiece of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte requires Moreau’s character to walk across what hack writers would call an urban landscape; her slightly dazed wobble delighted Luis Buñuel, who cast her in his adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid, up for the dirty-old-man kinks in the script and Octave Mirbeau’s novel (“Above all, her manner of walking, with that slight swaying of her ankles,” he crowed to Mexican critics Tomás Pérez Turrent y José de la Colina in the seventies). He and Antonioni got the idea to cast her from The Lovers, the Louis Malle film that made his and Moreau’s international reputations. Her moods shift with the subtlety of a tree casting shade in the early afternoon or, to use the film, of the changes of tone and color that Miles Davis gets from his trumpet. No actress in the sixties could touch her intelligence and the way in which she held parts of herself in reserve; pondering that mystery drew audiences closer to her, she understood. This is what separates a film from a stage actor. I’m fond of her Madame de Merteuil in Roger Vadim’s modish adaptation of Dangerous Liasions and two disparate parts for Orson Welles: the vamp in The Trial and as Mistress Quickly in Chimes at Midnight — “one of the few moments of frisson between Welles and a woman,” I wrote during its 2016 revival.
She wavered not an inch. Her wary, hooded alertness deepened. Casting her challenged male directors to get past their complacency. I still haven’t watched Lumière, her 1976 directorial debut, I’m ashamed to admit. In the last twenty or so years she has trained Anne Parillaud on the art of assassination (Nikita) and offered counsel to the unspeakably gorgeous Melvil Poupaud, playing her grandson, in Time to Leave (2005), one of the few times she played cute. “To be a star is to have freedom, but only if you choose it,” she told Roger Ebert in 1976. “The people who back movies, the bankers and distributors, treat you like some kind of mine in which they can dig and dig, always digging up the same things they’ve found there before. So you become trapped. I made a deliberate decision to try to work with good directors. Famous ones or young ones nobody had heard of, it made no difference — if their ideas about film were interesting.” In the same interview she recalled Warren Beatty’s rudeness at a panel discussion: “First, he came 20 minutes late. Then he threw out the television cameras. Why? He wanted to establish a relationship with the audience, which was mostly women. A relationship of power. I could feel it. Merde! So I walked out.” To imagine an actress — an actor — mimicking the gesture in 2017 is like imagining hiding under the branch of a deciduous tree in the Mesozoic Era. But actresses weren’t doing it in 1976 either. Mourning Jeanne Moreau — an act of respect at which she might have heartily laughed in mockery —