Entertainment

Sunday 24 September 2017

France's tiny powerhouse in Ugg boots

The legendary actress Jeanne Moreau died this week, aged 89. Our reporter recalls a memorable encounter with her in Paris

Jeanne Moreau in 'Viva Maria!' from 1965
Jeanne Moreau in 'Viva Maria!' from 1965

Ciara Dwyer

'Some women say that they want a man with blue eyes, dark hair or that he has to be tall, as if it was a menu," fumed French actress Jeanne Moreau in her husky voice. Her brown eyes were bulging in exasperation. Such idiocy. She let out a little 'pah' sound and pouted.

I was beginning to regret my question - what did she look for in a man? Down through the years she'd had such a diversity of lovers, from French film directors Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut, Italian heart-throb actor Marcello Mastroianni to American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. There was fashion designer Pierre Cardin, actor Lee Marvin and director Tony Richardson. She also had two husbands of her own - French actor-screenwriter Jean- Louis Richard and American director William Friedkin (each marriage lasted less than a decade.)

She had said that love was like a fragrance - it didn't last. But I was curious to see if there was a common denominator in her desires. "Why should I expect anything?" she said. An air of calmness descended over us both. Of course, she was so right. The wisest words on relationships ever uttered. They lingered with me long after that afternoon in her Paris apartment in Square du Roule back in 2002. I thought of them when I heard of her death last Monday, aged 89, in that very apartment.

She lived on the fifth floor, only minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the Champs-Elysees. It was an oasis of calm and yet there was a quiet efficiency about it. Moreau was 74 but this was not some typical old lady's apartment with daytime TV blasting or any signs of life slowing down. It was a hive of activity. The fax machine was billowing out pages of a herbalist's remedy for Moreau. She'd take this while continuing her life-long habit of smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Some would say this was typically French, full of contradictions, the very thing which makes them infuriating yet intriguing.

There were orchids and amaryllis all over the place. The apartment was festooned with objects of beauty and carefully catalogued books - Plato's Republic, tomes on architecture and two entire shelves devoted to books by Marguerite Duras (Moreau had just played the part of the French writer in the film Cet Amour-La). On another shelf there was a box set of Maria Callas's CDs. Unlike the diva who ended her days as a recluse in Paris, Moreau had no intention of retiring from life or turning into a tragic figure. She had far too much fighting spirit for that. The wooden floors shone and assistants bustled around, showing sheets of paper with appointments to their boss, the queen bee. It was late afternoon in Paris and the sun was going down.

In zoomed a tiny blonde-haired woman, the star of the seminal 1962 French New Wave film, Jules et Jim. She stood before me, a passionate powerhouse in leggings and Ugg boots. I could still see the beauty in her face, the full lips and the brown eyes bursting with intelligence. Time had engraved her face but she did not let that bother her. "Look at me," she said. "I don't worry about it. Don't you think that worries show more on the face than age? I know I can be beautiful when I want to be. You grow old - so what? The important word is grow."

She paced up and down the room, like a tiger. It was as if she had too much energy to sit still. What a thrill. Some might have lamented that I was not seeing her in her physical prime, but all those life experiences and fascinating film roles made her all the more interesting to me. Youth and beauty are such ephemeral things. And she had the intelligence to embrace her years. "There is the beauty of youth but a young face is like a blank page," she said. "There is nothing to read. It is like opening a book with blank pictures." She analysed her features with a cool detachment, and what she said of her face was true. "I don't look like somebody who submits easily."

While Brigitte Bardot's famous pout was full of sexual promise, Moreau's mouth, with a slight downturn, gave the impression of a complicated woman. Her beauty was not about prettiness or perfection. The faint shadows under her eyes made her even more alluring. They suggested late nights and dark moods. All of this gave her a sullen sensuality. Hers was not a typical beauty. She was known as "la jolie laide" - beautiful ugly.

Moreau started her career on the stage but most people know her from her films. On screen, she was always interesting. With a mere glance or a shoulder shrug, she could be world-weary or wistful. Joyful one minute and dour the next, she had one of the most expressive faces in film. She had a subtle eroticism and she interpreted her roles with great intellect. Orson Welles called her "the greatest actress in the world."

In Louis Malle's Les Amants, she was the bored housewife who falls so passionately in love with a dinner guest that they make love there and then in the garden. She enacted an orgasmic moment which caused a scandal. In Truffaut's Jules et Jim, she was Catherine, an enigmatic young woman in a doomed love triangle with a French and an Austrian student, against the backdrop of the First World War. As well as having a prolific acting career, she also directed two films of her own. She continued acting into her 80s.

In her films, she tended to play independent, free-spirited women. When I asked if her own character defined her roles, she spoke of herself in the third person. "Jeanne Moreau has nothing to do with it," she said. "There is not a Jeanne Moreau type. What comes out of me is my fragrance - a curiosity, a determination. I am known for certain things and the woman in me is responsible for the image the actress gives to other women. For young women, I want them to have an image of what they can be… resist, never submit. I never portrayed a strong woman. I portrayed characters who didn't submit. That's very different."

Jeanne Moreau was born in Paris in 1928. When I asked her about her childhood and her parents in particular, her face looked troubled. "They were passionately attached and desperately unhappy," she said. "My mother [Kathleen Buckley] was born in the North of England with an Irish background. My father was from the centre of France. We never had a home. My father used to have a hotel and restaurant, so everything was for the clients. They were too involved in their own lives. My mother was torn, thinking of what she could have been. She came to Paris in 1925, she was a Tiller girl and she danced with Josephine Baker."

Jeanne's father was against her becoming an actress. "For him, being an actress was being a whore," she said. "My mother helped me to become a young actress, but was she doing this out of her own frustration or to resist him? With the first money that I earned, she used it to leave my father and went back to England. When I was a child, I had my own life, parallel to my parents' lives. But I liked it, that freedom, that autonomy, that isolation, that solitude. Books were my teachers. I wanted to discover music and paintings. First I thought that I would be a nun." I laughed at this but she wasn't amused. She was deadly serious. "I am an actress like I would be a nun," she says. " I dedicate myself to what I do in an absolute way. I like the ritual, the dedication."

When Jeanne was 14, she went to see a play. It was during the German occupation of France. "It was forbidden for me to go. I went to see the play and the heroine was Antigone who says 'no' all the time and I loved her. I thought she was extraordinary. Then I saw Phaedra and that's when I decided. Acting was God's gift and that's what I had to do."

I met Moreau the week before the IFI hosted a retrospective of her work in Dublin. Everyone wanted to look back at her past glories and talk about them. Everyone except the leading lady. "Nostalgia to me is like an illness and I don't have it," she said with a look of disdain. "My aim in life is to discover as much as I can. I'm not going to visit the same country. Life is all about creation, you go on opening doors. Most people think of life like a mountain. To me, life is not a mountain. It's a ladder. There is the earth and there is the sky. My life is up, up, until I disappear." As she uttered this last sentence, she waved her arms above her head. When I heard that Jeanne Moreau had died, I pictured her tiny frame in leggings climbing up the ladder, her Ugg boots disappearing into the clouds.

Jeanne Moreau 1928-2017

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