Jeanne Moreau and I got off to a rocky start. Who knew it would last a lifetime. It was always one-sided, of course, with her up there on the screen, and me in the dark, watching. Nevertheless, I persisted.
I first encountered her in the ’60s when I was a teenager and she was enough of a star in Europe to make her attractive to American moviemakers. The trouble was, Americans cast her in lumbering movies like The Yellow Rolls Royce where she was relegated to playing the hackneyed role of zee French sophisticate. All I saw was a woman suffocated in lousy movies that not even she could save (other people liked Viva Maria!, where she was paired with Brigitte Bardot, but even to horny teenage me, that looked like a dud too: maybe they were having fun on screen, but the fun wasn’t contagious).
Then I got to college and found Jules and Jim (1962), and everything made sense. As soon as I saw her as Catherine in what is not only Francois Truffaut’s best movie but one of the very best movies ever made, in her newsboy cap and her pencilled-in mustache, I was smitten. The role showcased her ability to be compelling and elusive all at once. That footrace near the beginning sums it up perfectly: You always wanted to give chase, and she was always one step ahead, like someone, as the film says, who reinvents herself in every moment.
After that, I kept an eye out for her, no matter the movie or how small the part. She shows up for about five minutes in The Train (1964), an otherwise workmanlike movie about saving art masterpieces from the Nazis, but that’s all the time she needs to obliterate everything else about the story. I would say she ignites the screen, but she was subtler than that. No, quite simply, she just seems so alive, like a real woman who’s wandered into a movie, dragging all the complications of a normal human life into something where all that has been pretty studiously ignored for most of the film. She makes you catch your breath as soon as you see her, and you sigh with regret as soon as her part is done.
Not that she couldn’t hold her own with really great actors. Orson “Hambone” Welles nails Falstaff in his Chimes at Midnight, but he has the whole movie and nearly every scene to get that done. Moreau’s Doll Tearsheet grasps a fraction of that screen time, but her scenes with Welles are indelible: two aging yet amorous friends and lovers, they need very little help from Shakespeare to convey in shrugs and embraces, and sly looks and awkward pauses all there is to say about yearning and what might have been, about affection untainted by time, and about the aching fear of being forgotten. These are grown ups, or she is at least, and those scenes are as tender and messy with real human feeling as anything Welles ever captured on film. Watching them together, you understand what he meant when he called her the “greatest actress in the world,” and why he kept postponing the filming of those scenes while making the movie: He, too, was in awe of her.
Some actors make me nervous, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the actor isn’t comfortable in the role, or because I am not sold on the performance, or some of both. With Moreau, it was always the reverse: As soon as she appeared on screen, I relaxed. Even if her job was to sow chaos, that was cool, too. I knew she could handle it.
She was often called the French Bette Davis. “Very nice,” she said, “but I can’t stand Bette Davis.” The only point of comparison, really, is that both were unconventionally beautiful. Beyond that, not so much: Davis got right up in your face. She was bold and assertive, someone you recognize right off as a force to reckon with, whereas Moreau let you come to her with a sort of actorial rope-a-dope that drew you close and quietly captivated you even as somehow she held you at arm’s length.
Hers was a changeling’s face, where beauty and ugliness and coarseness and refinement contended all at once. Louis Malle directed her in several movies, including her first big hit, Elevator to the Gallows. He observed that “she could be almost ugly and then ten seconds late she would turn her face and would be incredibly attractive. But she would be herself.”
Watching Moreau taught me that attraction might be based on something besides beauty or even youth. If anything she became more attractive with age. Or maybe that ceased to matter. She wasn’t cagey and she wasn’t selling anything. All the same, you couldn’t take your eyes off of her.
Years would go by and I wouldn’t think of her, and then there she was, popping up in some part in the unlikeliest places, like her moment in The Train or, years later, her little turn in La Femme Nikita as—what else?—a chic woman of a certain age who schools the title character in style, etiquette, and sophistication. Those moments always made me smile, because it was like bumping into an old friend out of the blue. So if nothing else, her death makes me realize how much I’ll miss running into her at the movies.
Getting to know someone on screen is not like getting to know them in life. Sometimes we see them young, and then old, and then somewhere in the middle. They are familiar and not familiar. It’s like reading a story where the pages are scrambled, the order haphazard. And complicating things, the viewer’s perspective changes too. Jules and Jim is not the same movie I saw when I was 20 because I am not the same.
Moreau, though, moreso than most actors, defied time. Even as I progressed through life, and even as my understanding of her changed, from bafflement to infatuation to appreciation and admiration, she remained somehow the same. Her age didn’t matter, only the clarity of her presence on screen—no one ever made wit and intelligence more seductive—was constant, reassuring but also baffling, an intriguing puzzle never to be solved.
In the middle of Jules and Jim, she runs out of the house, pausing only long enough to turn to Jim and say, “Catch me,” before she dashes away.
Catch me. Make that her epitaph.