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 epitomised 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 French New Wave.
“Physical beauty is a disgrace,” she once said in her characteristic rasp, her voice redolent with 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”.
Former culture minister Jack Lang added, “She came into a tightly-corseted society and showed a whole generation of women the path to emancipation.”
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.”
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 (“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”.
Defied her father
Born in Paris 1928 to an English chorus girl from Oldham and a French restaurant 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 theatre 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 criminal 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 centre 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.”
Neither pretty nor plain, her features could range in an instant from radiance to lassitude, and audiences and critics found her spellbinding.
In 1960 she began a long run of outstanding roles with Peter Brook’s “Seven Days… Seven Nights” — for which she won the best actress award at the Cannes film festival.
Her occasional sorties into English-language cinema included Carl Foreman s “The Victors” and John Frankenheimer s wartime epic “The Train”.
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 mainly to secondary roles as in Losey s classic “Mr. Klein” or Elia Kazan s “The Last Tycoon” and then, taking in a brief marriage to the American director William Friedkin, tried her own hand at directing with “Lumiere” and “L Adolescente”.
She could also sing as evidenced by her rendition of “Le Tourbillon de la Vie”, the catchy refrain from “Jules et Jim” that was inspired by her tumultuous first marriage to the actor-director Jean-Louis Richard.
Despite her honours — she headed the state commission that dispenses subsidies to French filmmakers, and in 1995 chaired the Cannes 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 late in life.
“Filming with Jeanne Moreau wasn t easy,” said Ilmar Raag, who shot her in “An Estonian in Paris” in 2012.
“She read the scripts and suggested changes the next day.
“In general they were good comments and I took them into account.”
Moreau married twice and had one son, Jerome, from her first marriage to Richard.