Remembering Actress Jeanne Moreau, Icon Of French New Wave Cinema

Jul 31, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 8:33 am

Jeanne Moreau was an actress of the French new wave who broke the rules both on screen and off. She died Monday in Paris at the age of 89.

As a young woman, Moreau kept her acting a secret from her father, who disapproved. When he found out, he hit her and kicked her out of the house, and she never went back. In 1993, Moreau told Fresh Air, "It helped me that he reacted so violently. It gave me the drive to resist."

Moreau starred in Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958), Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Orson Welles' The Trial (1962) and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), widely considered the most important film of her career.

In 2001, Moreau became the first woman to be inducted into France's Academy of Fine Arts.


Interview Highlights

On how her mother helped her pursue acting against her father's wishes

On one side, my father was against it, and on the other side, my mother helped me. ... She covered my lies because, very early, I led a double life. ... I studied to be an actress, and my father didn't know. And I acted on the stage, and my father didn't know. He discovered it when he saw my picture on the front page of a newspaper. And my first play was a huge success, and I was on the front page of all the daily newspapers. ... Well, he threw me out. [I stayed] in a hotel ... [for] six months.

On whether her father ever accepted her being an actress

Never. Never. Never. He was proud when I had an official decoration, you know, the Legion of Honor and things like that. But he used to say, "I can't understand. What has she got that is so special?" He thought I was a very good cook, that he appreciated. And it's true, I'm a very good cook. That was his limit.

On how her new wave films were different from anything she'd done before

It was totally different. In fact, I started filming at the same time as I started acting on stage. I'm from the stage. My only ambition was to be on stage. I had never seen a film. It was forbidden. It was considered scandalous. I was not allowed to go to see films, and I was not allowed to read the newspapers. That's the way I was brought up. As you can see, it's a very, very restricted discipline. So I started filming. And I must say, the new wave brought about a total different approach, a total freedom.

The old films I had made, I never met the director. I was contacted by the producer. I would meet the costume designer, the cameraman. And then maybe two or three days before the first day of [shooting], I would have a meeting with the director. ...

And when I was approached by Louis Malle — at the time, I was doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams, on stage, directed by Peter Brook. A very young man came to visit me with his two producers, and he was 24 and I was 29. And he came up and he explained [to] me what sort of film he wanted to do: very small budget, very small crew, hand camera, no makeup, shooting with [a] very light electrical group in the Champs-Élysées at night. Oh, I thought, God, isn't that marvelous? No makeup! Because the big problem [was] I didn't look like any of the stars of the time. I was supposed to be not very good looking. I had those signs under my eyes, the drooping mouth, and it took hours to make me up.

On how filming the love scenes in Louis Malle's The Lovers affected her romantic relationship with the director

My main preoccupation was my relationship with Louis Malle at the time. We were lovers, and I was, I mean, I was passionately in love with him. And immediately [when] we started the film, I had a very strange feeling. It was as though the more I would give to Louis Malle as a director, the more I would open up to that character on screen, the less would be left of our personal relationship, you know? ... I had the impression that as the sand was falling on the lower part [of an hourglass] then the last grain of sand would be the end of our relationship, and I was right. ...

I was giving up something that was very personal and secret and intimate between me and him. And it's as though it was sacred. And I had the impression I was giving it to him as a film director to go exactly where he wanted to go as a filmmaker, and I had to pay the price. Maybe it's my Christian background, you know, Catholic background, but it worked that way. So I didn't bother to think about: Is it going to be scandalous or what? No. I wanted to be as close to the truth, the beautiful truth of lovemaking and sensuality.

And I say "sensuality", I do not say "sexuality", because the thing I regret nowadays — it's that sex has deprived how people relate to sex of their beauties, of that sacred, spiritual, beautiful glory of each human being, just to be considered like a piece of meat, a slice of steak. What is great in making love, it's that you mix both, the senses and the love, and that's it.

Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Today we remember actress Jeanne Moreau, who died Monday at her home in Paris. She was 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGES DELERUE'S "DELERUE: JULES ET JIM: BROUILLARD")

DAVIES: That's the score for the 1962 film "Jules And Jim," directed by Francois Truffaut. The score was composed by Georges Delerue. "Jules And Jim" starred Moreau as a Bohemian woman adored by two men in a tragic love triangle. It was one of the most influential films of the French New Wave, which brought international fame to Moreau, who was adored as a femme fatale of the French cinema. Moreau was known for breaking the rules on screen and off. As a young woman, she kept her acting a secret from her father, who disapproved. When he found out, he hit her and kicked her out of the house. She never returned.

Moreau made over 110 films. He starred in Louis Malle's early films, "Elevator To The Gallows" and "The Lovers," in Truffaut's, "The Bride Wore Black," Luis Bunuel's "Diary Of A Chambermaid" and Orson Welles' "The Trial." At the age of 73, Moreau became the first woman to be inducted into France's Academy of Fine Arts. Terry spoke with Jeanne Moreau in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: You starred in the early films of Louis Malle.

JEANNE MOREAU: The first films, first films.

GROSS: First films, yeah, like "Elevator To The Gallows" and then his film "The Lovers." You starred in Truffaut's early film "Jules And Jim" and then in "The Bride Wore Black." You had been in at least one film before that or in several films before that. Was it different to work with the new way of directors than it was to work in your earlier films?

MOREAU: It was totally different. In fact, I started filming at the same time as I started acting on stage. I'm born - I'm from the stage. My only ambition was to be onstage. I had never seen a film, was forbidden. It was considered scandalous. I was not allowed to go to see films, and I was not allowed to read the newspapers. That's the way I was brought up. As you can see, it's a very, very, very restricted discipline.

So I started filming. And I must say, the New Wave brought about a total different approach, a total freedom. The old films I had made, I never met the director. I was contacted by the producer. I would meet the costume designer, the camera man. And then maybe two or three days before the first day of shoot, I would have a meeting with the director. The directors on set - on the set besides Jacques Becker was not well known here but was a great, great film director. They never gave an explanation, never asked something special.

And I remember one day, I approached the director. And I said, well, please, tell me exactly what you would like me to do in that scene. And the man looked at me and he said, well, aren't you an actress? I said, yes. Well, you were hired to act - just do it. So, you know, I was quite flabbergasted because on stage in the theater, the committee process was very, very different.

And when I was approached by Louis Malle, at the time, I was doing "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" - Tennessee Williams - on stage, directed by Peter Brook. Very young man, came to visit me with his two producers. And he was 24. And I was 29. And he came up, and he explained to me what sort of film he wanted to do - very small budget, very small crew, hand camera, no makeup, shooting with a very light electrical group in the Champs-Elysees at night.

Oh, I thought, God, isn't that marvelous? No makeup because the big problem - I didn't look like any of the stars at the time. I was supposed to be not very good looking. I had those signs under my eyes, a drooping mouth. And it took hours to make me up.

GROSS: Did they try to make you look more conventional when they made me you up?

MOREAU: Yeah. I mean, everything had to be erased. And when I looked at myself in the mirror - good God. And then suddenly, that was freedom. You know, just a base and a little powder. And I just had to look myself, that's all. And that was a great change. And the fact that it was a very small crew meant that there were no delays. We were moving on.

GROSS: It must have been interesting to you to go from a family that forbade you to read newspapers and forbade you to see movies because they thought it was trashy and they thought acting was like prostitution.

MOREAU: Yeah.

GROSS: Now you were working with a director who was incredibly serious about film and who saw film as a great art form, as I'm sure you did, too.

MOREAU: Yeah.

GROSS: Did that change your whole perception of the world?

MOREAU: It did. Well, I knew it must have been like that, but I do not regret the first films I did because later on, rarely it happened to me to work with people that were less talented than all the names you've given. And at least I could be in charge of myself, you know. I had a knowledge of the camera, of the lenses, of tracks, of movements, what was - technically cinema was about. And I could be in charge of myself. But it's true that opening up with the New Wave confirmed what I was seeking for. And there's something very, very strange while talking with you.

GROSS: What?

MOREAU: I'm thinking about - my father was violently against. In fact, now he's gone since about 10 years, I discover while speaking with you that all my life, I always try to prove to him that I was right. You know, it's funny. It really - it gave me such an impulse. In fact, it helped me.

GROSS: To take movies that seriously to help prove that you were right?

MOREAU: And it helped me that he was - that he reacted so violently. It gave me the drive to resist. I resisted him. And now he's gone, I'm grateful. I thank him. It made things difficult, but then it forced me to go further, you know.

GROSS: Further and deeper.

MOREAU: Yeah, and deeper. I wanted to be amongst the best.

GROSS: In the second movie that you made with Louis Malle, "The Lovers," there's a long and very sensual, very romantic scene toward the end of the film in which you meet a man. And after a little bit of, like, resistance, you - the two of you just, like, fall in love and take a long before...

MOREAU: Well, they make love. They make love everywhere. And they make love all night long.

GROSS: Right.

MOREAU: And it's very kind of you to say it's romantic. Now, it's considered as romantic, I mean, compared to what one is able to see in films. But when it came out in the '60s, it was considered a real scandal. There are some countries where it was forbidden.

GROSS: Well, the camera, you know, it's very clear that the couple is making love, but the camera is on your face and on your hand the whole time. Through the movements of your hands and the expression on your face, you know exactly what's happening, although you don't see it.

MOREAU: I think we should go back to that nowadays. I'm fed up of seeing buttocks and things, you know.

GROSS: What did you think of the scene when it was shot? Did you feel that it crossed a boundary that it shouldn't have crossed it? Did you think it was beautiful?

MOREAU: I - no. It didn't come to my mind. My main preoccupation was my relationship with Louis Malle at the time. We were lovers. And I was - I mean, I was passionately in love with him. And immediately we started the film, I had a very strange feeling. It was as though the more I would give to Louis Malle as a director, the more I would open up to that character on screen, the less would be left of our personal relationship. You know, you understand what I mean? I don't know how you call those things that counts the time, those strange little objects.

GROSS: An hourglass?

MOREAU: Yeah. And I had the impression that as the sand was falling on the lower part, then the last sand - grain of sand - would be the end of our relationship. And I was right.

GROSS: Why did you think that...

MOREAU: I don't know.

GROSS: ...Acting out love in front of the camera as...

MOREAU: Because I was giving up something that was very personal and secret and intimate between me and him. And it's as though I was sacred. And I had the impression I was giving it to him as a film director to go exactly where he wanted to go as a filmmaker. And I had to pay the price. Maybe it's my Christian background - you know, Catholic background - but it worked that way. So I didn't bother to think about, is it going to be scandalous or what?

No. I wanted to be as close to the truth - through a beautiful truth of love making and sensuality. And I say sensuality. I do not say sexuality because a thing I regret nowadays - it's that sex - as deprived people relate to sex - of the beauties of that sacred, spiritual, beautiful glory of each human being - just to be considered like a piece of meat, a slice of steak. What is great in making love - it's that you mix both the senses and the love. And that's it. So I didn't think about scandal.

GROSS: Do you think that Louis Malle had the same fears that somehow making the movie would end the real relationship?

MOREAU: Yes. Later on, we spoke about it. And he said that he felt the same. And I asked for something. Usually, I'm never keen on asking things - special things - to be on the set or in a frame in a film. At the end of the film, when she leaves the house with her lover, she's in one of those old, little, French cars. And across the landscape and on the left side, there's a white horse. And I asked for the white horse because, when I was a child, my grandmother and mother - when they saw a white horse, they would spit on the floor and say, white horse, white horse, give me good luck. Good luck to me. Good luck to you. And good luck to every white horse like you. And I wanted the last image to be goodbye to that love but at the same time good luck to the white horse and to me.

GROSS: Was it worth the sacrifice of a relationship to make a great film?

MOREAU: Of course. It was not a sacrifice. It was symbolic because no love lasts as long as that. And it ended there, and we made not only these two films. But later on, he had another love. I had another lover. He came up, and he asked me to play a part in another film of his. And we love each other in a different way.

DAVIES: Jeanne Moreau speaking with Terry Gross - recorded in 1993. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGES DELERUE'S "JULES ET JIM: MAIN TITLE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's interview with actress Jeanne Moreau, an icon of the French New Wave movement. Moreau died Monday at the age of 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, I think you've lived your life a step ahead of the times. For example, the first time you got married, you got married just a few days before you gave birth to your child.

MOREAU: Oh, the day before.

GROSS: The day before

MOREAU: The day before.

GROSS: And...

MOREAU: But that's not breaking the rules (laughter) It's just that we didn't want to get married. And then we complied because the families were so worried because of the name of the child. So at the last moment, we said yes just to please the others.

GROSS: Were there consequences that you feel you paid during your life either in your personal life or in your career as a result of having broken certain social conventions?

MOREAU: Well, let's see. Well, maybe at some point, some people considered me as an outsider. But as I didn't mix with that sort of people, I didn't mind, really. So I think, even if I had to pay some price, it didn't hurt me, really, because deeply rooted in me was the belief that I had to be true to myself or true that - to that inner voice. I don't relate only with material things. I don't only rely on what I see and what I hear. I'm always - I try always to be very closely in a relationship with my intuition and in what is beyond what is seen, what is heard and what is shown. I believe in the life of the spirit.

GROSS: I want to get back to your childhood. You told us that your father was dead set against you becoming an actress. Acting was like prostitution to him. But your mother - didn't she dance in the Folies Bergere, which was...

MOREAU: Yeah, of course. She was a dancer.

GROSS: And what did you think of that?

MOREAU: I loved it.

GROSS: What did your father think of it?

MOREAU: Well, my father fell in love with her maybe because she was a dancer. And she was, you know - and she got pregnant. I mean, she married - she didn't marry a year before I was born. She married a few months before I was born. I think that she became a Catholic to be able to marry my father in the church while she was already pregnant. That - you see, in the family, they always considered my mother like a strange person, a foreigner. She always spoke French with a lovely, adorable English accent.

GROSS: And your mother was from England.

MOREAU: Yeah. And she was a - she had been a dancer. And, of course, I'm sure that I was part of the game between my father and my mother because, on one side, my father was against it. And on the other side, my mother helped me.

GROSS: Helped you to act?

MOREAU: Well, she governed my life because, very early, I led a double life.

GROSS: Oh, what did you do?

MOREAU: Well, I studied to be an actress, and my father didn't know.

GROSS: Oh.

MOREAU: And I acted on the stage, and my father didn't know. He discovered it when he saw my picture on the front page of a newspaper.

GROSS: Wow. Because you were in the Comedie-Francaise. It would be hard to keep that a secret.

MOREAU: And my first play was a huge success. And I was on the front page of all the daily newspapers.

GROSS: Well, he must've been mighty angry.

MOREAU: Well, he threw me out.

GROSS: Where'd you go?

MOREAU: In a hotel.

GROSS: How long did you have to stay there?

MOREAU: Six months.

GROSS: That's a long time. Did you ever go back home after that?

MOREAU: No, never. But I made up with my father when I heard he was sick. About four years later, he was in hospital. And I went, and I took him out. And after that, I always took care of him. And he spent the 10 last years of his life in my property - you would call that a ranch - in the south of France.

GROSS: Did he ever say to you, you're actually a really good actress, and you've made some fine films?

MOREAU: Never, never (laughter), never. He was proud when I had an official decoration - you know, the Legion of Honour and things like that. But he used to say, I can't understand. What has she got that is so special? He thought I was a very good cook. That he appreciated.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOREAU: And it's true. I'm a very good cook. That was his limit. I had to do things with my hands. And I did.

GROSS: Are you living in France now?

MOREAU: I'm living in Paris.

GROSS: Paris. OK.

MOREAU: I'm living alone.

GROSS: Do you like living alone?

MOREAU: I need it.

GROSS: There are a lot of pleasures in living alone. What do you enjoy about it?

MOREAU: The freedom to ask somebody to share my solitude.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's very nicely put.

MOREAU: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOREAU: And it's so good sometimes just to spread oneself in one's bed, get up at whatever time you wish. There are lots of pleasures.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it a lot.

MOREAU: I thank you very much. And to me, it was not like an interview. It was just like a conversation. And I think I'm very privileged to be able to speak about things that are important to me. And I thank you very much.

DAVIES: Actress Jeanne Moreau speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. Moreau died on Monday at her home in Paris. She was 89. Coming up, we remember actor and playwright Sam Shepard, whose breakthrough film role was as test pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff." And our rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Dark Matter," Randy Newman's first album of new material in nine years. We'll end this half of the show with the Miles Davis score for "Elevator To The Gallows," the 1958 Louis Malle film which starred Jeanne Moreau. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "FLORENCE SUR LES CHAMPS-ELYSEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.