Jeanne Moreau Is the French New Wave

If ever a movement in cinema was defined by its directors, it must be the French New Wave, the bastion of the “auteur theory,” which was promulgated by a group of Young Turk critics in the orbit of the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Mostly men (with the exception of the still active Agnes Varda), these artists influenced a generation of filmmakers around the world with their brash sendups of many of classic cinema’s themes and techniques, as well as their legendary affairs with many of their leading ladies. 

The French New Wave reinvented the rules of screenplay writing, narrative structure and cinematography, and it was defined by the face of one actor: Jeanne Moreau.

Moreau, who died on July 31 at age 89, was not solely a product of the movies. She studied at the Conservatoire of Paris, and in 1947 she appeared in the Comèdie-Française production of Turgenev’s A Day in the Country. She also appeared in several dozen potboilers before she was cast in Louis Malle’s first movie, the 1958 film noir Elevator to the Gallows. Released more than two years before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which many regard as the first New Wave landmark, this drama of a murder gone awry established the not-quite-30-year-old Moreau as a fresh cinema icon.

In a night sequence showing Moreau wandering through Paris in search of her missing lover (who is trapped in an elevator shaft), we see all the qualities that also characterized her later movie work. Miles Davis’ haunting, melancholy score accompanies her trek through the streets, which cinematographer Henri Decae starkly lit with often unflattering available light. Moreau’s is not the carefully cultivated star’s face that had previously dominated French and American screens. Yet hers is more beautiful; it’s a real woman’s face, the face of someone unafraid to face her fear and vulnerability.

Here is a clip:

Five years later, Moreau starred opposite Claude Mann in Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels, about an introverted young man who is seduced by the older Jackie, a compulsive gambler bent on living moment by moment in a self-destructive existential tear through Côte d’Azur casinos. The arcade-like piano score by Michel Legrand reflects Jackie’s turbulent intensity.

No character is more different from the seductress Jackie than Lidia, wife of the intellectual writer Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Leaving the party of a wealthy friend at dawn, Lidia and Giovanni wander onto an adjacent golf course and talk of their stalled, seemingly loveless marriage. Near the end of the scene, Lidia produces a letter from her purse and reads it to her husband. Her anguish as she forges through the reading is one of the great epistolatory moments in cinema.

In The Lovers (1958), the character of Jeanne Tournier gave Moreau an opportunity to play a disturbed wife of a different place and class. Bored with both her husband and her polo-playing lover, she runs away in the middle of the night with a new lover, a young student who helped her when her car broke down on a country road. Jeanne’s husband is obsessed with a recording of Brahms’ Opus 16 string sextet, which surfaces in the soundtrack throughout the film. This mash-up of shots of Moreau from the film gives us yet another opportunity to “gaze” into her remarkable face, a late 20th century analogue to that of another other cinematic mystery, Greta Garbo.

I’ll finish this brief tribute to Moreau with one of the most iconic scenes in all of French cinema, “Le Tourbillon” from François Truffaut’s masterpiece, Jules and Jim:

Jeanne, the whirlwind of your life in movies blew such soothing breezes to us all.

NB: Beginning Aug. 28, I will publish new posts every three weeks instead of every two because of the demands on my schedule as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Please subscribe to the blog in the box below if you'd like to be notified of new posts.


Shelby Lee Adams: Salt and Truth


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