ACTRESS Jeanne Moreau with Burt Lancaster in The Train.
ACTRESS Jeanne Moreau with Burt Lancaster in The Train.

JEANNE MOREAU’S sudden death a few days ago was quickly received as a national tragedy all over France. Many TV networks altered their programmes to show a documentary on her life or screen one of her classic films. Paying homage to the legendary figure, President Emmanuel Macron spoke of “a virtuoso who had incarnated the art of cinema in all its complexities and exigencies”.

Moreau’s career spanned 65 years not only as a movie star but equally as a singer, director and a screenwriter. She always was well ahead of her time, even our own time, to speak the truth.

Interviewed soon after the success of Viva Maria in 1965 in which she had played with Brigitte Bardot, a TV journalist paid compliments to her beauty.

“I don’t agree with you”, she said, “I don’t think I am beautiful. I don’t like my face.”

Puzzled, the interviewer asked, “Oh! So what do you do about that?”

She answered flatly: “There’s not much to be done. I must get used to the reality and that is what I try to do.”

Brigitte Bardot on hearing the news of Jeanne Moreau’s demise said: “She was beautiful, terribly intelligent and an artiste with multiple personalities.”

Daughter of a French restaurant owner and a British cabaret dancer, she was perfectly bilingual and had played in many Hollywood movies. Orson Welles who used her talents in his 1962 masterpiece The Trial, qualified her as “the best actress I have ever worked with”.

She was brought to international attention following director Luis Bunuel’s A Chambermaid’s Diary that appeared in 1964. Many versions were earlier, and later, made of Octave Mirbeau’s literary chef d’oeuvre in which a Parisian housemaid finds a job in a distant chateau and gradually discovers the inner details of class conflict.

Another filmed version of the novel was the 1946 production directed by Jean Renoir with Paulette Goddard in the main role, then one more two years ago with Léa Seydou playing the part. But experts qualify Bunuel’s film as the best. In any case, it brought Jeanne Moreau into the limelight and turned her into an international celebrity.

She won the César a number of times at the Cannes film festival but, despite many successive nominations at the Hollywood ceremony, kept missing the golden statue. She was finally awarded a special Oscar in 1998 for her lifetime achievements.

She exceptionally held the honour of being received in 2001 as member of the French Academy of Fine Arts. This was unusual given the fact that it was the first time a woman had entered the Academy since it was created in 1816.

Jeanne Moreau stood out exceptionally in the famous John Frankenheimer film The Train in which a Nazi general, following occupation of France during the Second World War, tries to move a rare collection of paintings across the border to Germany. A small team of train workers led by a character played by Burt Lancaster finally succeeds in sabotaging the plan with the help of Jeanne Moreau in the role of a resistance fighter. The movie, though shot in English, was entirely filmed in France.

Reputed for her sonorous voice and unusual style of talking, Jeanne Moreau remained in the public attention till the very end of her life.

A few years ago she told a TV interviewer: “Old people are supposed to become thick-skinned and indifferent to what is happening around them. I feel my skin is becoming thinner and thinner and is practically disappearing. I can even feel the gradual shades of light or the changes in temperature on my hands and face.”

In perfect health till her last day, Jeanne Moreau died peacefully in her sleep during the night of July 31 at age 89.

—The writer is a journalist based in Paris

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2017