PARIS — French actress Jeanne Moreau, who lit up the screen in Jules et Jim and starred in some of the most critically acclaimed films of the 20th century, has died aged 89, her agent said Monday.
The gravel-voiced actress epitomized the freedoms of the 1960s and brought daring, depth and danger to a string of cinematic masterpieces from Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold to Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.
Moreau, who was still making films at 87, was found dead at her home in Paris early Monday, the district’s mayor told AFP.
Once described by US director Orson Welles as “the best actress in the world,” she was a feminist icon and trailblazer for liberated women as well as the face of the French New Wave.
“Physical beauty is a disgrace,” she once said in her characteristic rasp, her voice redolent with the strong French cigarettes she smoked.
Yet that did not stop her becoming the thinking man’s femme fatale with film scholar David Shipman calling her “the arthouse love goddess.”
Leading tributes to the plain-speaking actress, French President Emmanuel Macron said Moreau had “embodied cinema” and she was a free spirit who “always rebelled against the established order.”
Fellow French screen legend Brigitte Bardot told AFP, “Jeanne was a beautiful, intelligent, hugely seductive woman with a voice and a personality that made her an actress with so many sides. I am very sad today.”
One of her on-screen leading men Jean-Paul Belmondo said Moreau “loved to make jokes and obviously with me, the understanding was perfect.”
Moreau won the best actress award at the 1960 Cannes film festival for Moderato Cantabile in which she starred alongside Belmondo.
Former French culture minister Jack Lang said: “She came into a tightly corseted society and showed a whole generation of women the path to emancipation.”
It was that sparky rebel spirit that brought some of the world’s greatest directors to her door, from Welles for his Chimes at Midnight, to Michelangelo Antonioni for La Notte, Joseph Losey for Eva, and Luis Bunuel for his 1964 film Diary of a Chambermaid.
But Moreau turned down Mike Nichols, who wanted her to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.
“France has lost a national treasure as have we all,” tweeted her ex-husband William Friedkin, the American director of The Exorcist and The French Connection.
DEFIED HER FATHER
Born in Paris 1928 to an English chorus girl from Oldham and a French café owner, she took to acting with apparent effortless ease, defying her father by joining the Paris conservatoire at the age of 18, and gaining entry to the elite Comedie Francaise theater troupe two years later.
Her breakthrough came in 1958 when she starred in two films for Malle that challenged the moral certitudes of the times.
She played a wife plotting to kill her husband in Lift to the Scaffold with its iconic jazz score by Miles Davis, and further ruffled feathers in The Lovers, her first excursion into the sexual frankness that marked much of her later work.
But it was her tomboy playfulness that won her the hearts of a whole generation of filmgoers in Jules et Jim, playing the woman at the center of a menage-a-trois with two best friends, one Austrian and one French on the eve of World War I.
Francois Truffaut — who directed the film — said: “every time I picture her in the distance I see her reading not a newspaper but a book, because Jeanne Moreau doesn’t suggest flirtation but love.”
Her occasional sorties into English-language cinema included Carl Foreman’s The Victors and John Frankenheimer’s wartime epic The Train.
LOVED YOUNGER MEN
But Moreau was most at home in her native land, with a penchant for challenging, literate movies often adapted from works by such writers as Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras.
In 1974, her sex scenes in Les Valseuses with young thugs played by Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere caused a scandal.
Mostly, however, she chose to age gracefully, confining herself later mainly to secondary roles as in Losey’s 1976 classic Mr. Klein or Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon and then, taking in a brief marriage to Friedkin, tried her hand at directing with Lumiere and L’Adolescente.
She could also sing with her catchy rendition of “Le Tourbillon de la Vie” from Jules et Jim inspired by her tumultuous first marriage to actor-director Jean-Louis Richard.
Never short of male company, she was also romantically linked with Malle, Truffaut, Welles, Tony Richardson, and Marcello Mastroianni, and the fashion designer Pierre Cardin among others.
Late in life she confessed she had never found “absolute love,” telling a biographer that she never tired of looking. “I always liked to be with younger men and luckily for me the older I have got the more younger men I’ve found.”
Despite her many honors including heading the state commission that dispenses subsidies to French filmmakers and chairing the Cannes film festival jury — she was ever ready to take on daring, even salacious roles.
In 1994 she played an exotic half-British, half-Egyptian woman with a flamboyant sexual past in the British television play The Summer House. She did so, she said, as a tribute to her mother who had recently died.
Having racked up over 130 films over six decades, she continued acting till the end.
Moreau married twice and had a son, Jerome, from her first marriage to Richard. — AFP