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French Actress Jeanne Moreau Dies At 89 But Leaves Behind A New Wave Legacy

jeanne moreau

Jeanne Moreau, French actress, singer, screenwriter, and director, died yesterday, July 31, in Paris at 89. She leaves behind a legacy of revolutionary independence, rebellion, and sexuality. In the 1960s, Moreau became the face of the French New Wave movement, which was characterized by the rejection of traditional filmmaking and a breakaway from conservative religious and political views, and she perfectly pioneered the transition to a new type of actress the critic Ginette Vicindeau described as "beautiful, but in a kind of natural way; sexy, but intellectual at the same time, a kind of cerebral sexuality." Moreau's intelligently spirited approach infused her movies with a fresh brand of femininity. 

Born in Paris on January 23, 1928 to a British-born dancer at the Folies Bergère and the owner of a Montmartre hotel and restaurant, Moreau was set on becoming an actress by the time she was 15 after seeing her first play, Antigone. According to the New York Times, when she told her dream to her father, he slapped her, criticizing this ambition as foolish. But, similar to Christina Aguilera’s attitude in “Fighter,” Moreau used his opposition as motivation. “It forces you toward excellence,” she told a reporter for the French newspaper Le Figaro in 2001. “All my life I wanted to prove to my father that I was right.”

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And prove herself, she did. She achieved prominence as the star of Elevator to the Gallows (1958), directed by Louis Malle, and Jules et Jim (1962), directed by François Truffaut. Of Elevator to the Gallows, journalist Barry Farrell wrote, “Malle put Moreau under an honest light and wisely let his camera linger. It proposed a new ideal of cinematic realism, a new way to look at a woman. All the drama in the story was in Moreau's face – the face that had been hidden behind cosmetics and flattering lights in all her earlier films.” She departed from the common portrayal of women of the time as empty-headed and lacking in independence, instead encompassing the fierce spirit of the emerging feminist movement. Moreau continued to stand out for her natural sensuality, wit, and defiance, both onscreen and offscreen. She went on to win a Cannes Best Actress Award, a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress, a Best Actress César (France’s equivalent of an Oscar), and was the first women inducted into French scholarly society Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said in a statement on Monday: “We could say about Jeanne Moreau that a part of cinema legend is gone. But her whole work was precisely about never freezing her art into a mythology, and never locking herself into the respectable status of the ‘great actress.’ She had in her eye a sparkle that deflected deference and inspired insolence, freedom, the turbulence of life that she liked so much and that she will long make us like.”

Photo: Jeanne Moreau in Eva, 1962

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