The Unfathomable Jeanne
“It is her appearance that makes her so immediately compelling: that tenebrous face and those dark unsmiling eyes. Among movie stars, the decisive factor – the dividing line between effectiveness and the lack of it – is the eyes; there are ladies who are conscientiously passionate, but when you look at the eyes there’s nothing happening behind them. With Moreau, there’s almost too much. Cast, inevitably, as some modern Emma Bovary or Delilah her thoughts might be tantalizingly unfathomable – but you’re never in any doubt that there’s a hell of a lot of them.” David Shipman wrote that observation 45 years ago of the great Jeanne Moreau, celebrating her 89th birthday today, in his marvelous The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, and it pertains as much to the work that preceded it (Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, La Notte, Jules and Jim, Eve, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story) and followed it (Lumière, La Femme Nikita, Until the End of the World, Beyond the Clouds, I Love You, I Love You Not, The Proprietor, Ever After). Fellow film historian David Shipman would write a few years later in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “When her personality is engaged, we have the feeling of an intelligent, intuitive woman wanting to commit herself to the rhythm of the movie. She flowers under sympathetic, intimate direction. At her best, she is riveting, capable of persuading us that she is beautiful, and able to vary her own appearance according to mood. Above all, and without any trace of rhetoric, she bares a vivid but vulnerable soul.” Her soulfully expressive face is put to exquisite use in two darkly harrowing and supremely suspenseful Twilight Time titles set in her native France. John Frankenheimer’s gritty and thunderous World War II action epic The Train (1964) casts her as a careworn, widowed innkeeper reluctantly but stoically engaged in aiding resistance fighter Burt Lancaster and his comrades stopping a rail shipment of priceless art treasures commandeered by ruthless Nazi officer Paul Scofield from leaving the country. In her limited screen time, she conveys volumes about the resilience and everyday determination of an occupied people overshadowed by the threat of instant death to frustrate an oppressive enemy, and in her simmering outrage about the “foolish heroism” of men, manages momentarily to steal the screen from the charismatic Lancaster, even as she becomes resigned to facing the omnipresent danger with stealth and pluck. Four years later, for one of France’s most celebrated directors building up steam to achieve full-on Hitchcockian mode, she becomes an alluring locomotive of destruction for five cruelly careless men in François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968, tantalizingly scored by longtime Hitchcock associate Bernard Herrmann). As a vengeful bride whose new husband is capriciously and accidentally killed with a high-powered rifle shot as the newlyweds exit the church on their wedding day, she embarks on a systematic quest to murder the men responsible (played by Daniel Boulanger, Michel Bouquet, Charles Denner, Michel Lonsdale and Claude Rich), donning new identities and personas to lure and dispatch them, making sure that they recognize, in the moments of their dying agony, the force reckoning with them. TCM.com essayist Jeff Stafford recounts the director’s symbiotic relationship with his Jules and Jim star: “Truffaut would later write in a letter to Hitchcock, ‘On the set, she is ready to perform quickly or slowly; be funny or sad, serious or nutty, do anything that the director asks. And when misfortune strikes, she sticks by the captain of the ship: with no fuss or to-do...The danger for her in The Bride [Wore Black] is that her part is simply too extraordinary; the heroine, a woman who dominates men and then kills them, is too ‘prestigious.’ To counterbalance this, I asked Jeanne to play the part with simplicity, in a manner that is familiar and would make her actions unexpected, plausible and human. As I see it, Julie is a virgin, since her husband was killed at the church on the day of their wedding. But this revelation doesn't come out in the film and will have to remain a secret between Jeanne Moreau, you and me.’” Rendering the secretive and complex deceptively simple is this iconic actress’ hallmark, and her power to hold the screen with stillness and resolve is a key component of the lasting effect of both The Train and The Bride Wore Black on their TT hi-def Blu-rays. Joyeux anniversaire indeed!