French actress Jeanne Moreau wearing a chiffon gown.
Bert Stern—Condé Nast via Getty Images
July 31, 2017 5:17 PM EDT

Today, no one bats a heavy-lidded eye at the idea of Jeanne Moreau — who died Monday at age 89 — as one of the world’s great beauties. But even this indisputable fact is proof that all definitions of beauty are elusive and mutable: We think we know beauty when we see it, but do we always? By the time Moreau got her first starring role in a film — Louis Malle’s 1958 debut Elevator to the Gallows, one of the initial salvos of the French New Wave — she had already been a successful stage actress for years and had 20 small, undistinguished movie roles to her credit. “Nine years of bad films — it was a cinematic adolescence,” she said in 1965. “I never felt at ease on the screen because I was aware that I was far from beautiful. People who wanted to be nice about my looks would say, ‘You remind me so much of Bette Davis.’ Very nice, except I can’t stand Bette Davis.”

No one needs to be “nice” about Moreau’s face today. Anyone who doesn’t respond to it — that drowsy mouth turned down at the corners, those alert, quizzical eyes — is probably untrustworthy as a human being. But when your mom told you that true beauty comes from within, she was right about that too: Moreau’s spirit informed her beauty, and it’s the key to what made her such a sensual, captivating, powerful actress. She worked with some of the finest directors of the last century — Malle, François Truffaut, Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy — and in so doing, her story became part of theirs. In the context of the movie world, we speak a lot today about women’s empowerment and the obvious paths to it: We need to write, direct, tell our own stories. But Moreau took for herself a kind of stealth empowerment, earning — from her audience and from filmmakers alike — admiration, respect and love in such immeasurable, blended quantities that you can’t really distinguish one from another. That’s its own kind of power, not to be underestimated.

GIFs were beyond anyone’s imagination in 1958, but they may as well have been invented just to showcase Moreau’s subtle expressive gifts. In Elevator to the Gallows, Moreau plays femme fatale Florence, a deceitful wife complicit in the murder of her husband — her intention is to run off with her lover, Julien (Maurice Ronet). Morally, we shouldn’t be on her side, but spiritually, it’s impossible not to be. When she believes Julien has betrayed her, the gradations of doubt, anguish and jealousy that shadow her face are like the shifting tones of sunset. In Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), she was Catherine, the artery between two best friends, the Jules and Jim of the title (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). Both adore her and neither can possess her, but Catherine, as Moreau plays her, is no mere love object. Her joy — as when she sings a charming folk-style song, “Le Tourbillon,” accompanied by Jim on guitar — is also their ultimate radiance, a kind of powerpack for their own lives. Yet Catherine is also moody and obsessive, and Moreau expresses that as a betrayal of nature: Her eyes go blank, and it’s as if the moon had been snatched from the sky, leaving the tide not knowing which way to run.

Moreau played a sophisticated bourgeois schemer in Roger Vadim’s Choderlos de Laclos update Les Liaísons Dangereuses (1959), a servant flexing her erotic powers in Buñuel’s cerebral-surreal satire Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), and a soulful former prisoner who takes up with two ne’er-do-well sexual adventurers (Gerard Depardieu and Patrick DeWaere) in Bertrand Blier’s complex free-love farce Going Places (1974). In big roles and small ones, Moreau’s presence could bring either gravity or lightness or both, depending on what was needed. She also turned her hand at directing: Her resume includes two fiction features and a documentary about Lillian Gish. In later life, Moreau acted in French television and onstage, and had small roles in films, among them a charming turn as a French fairy-tale queen in Andy Tennant’s 1998 Ever After. Through the years, she also made record albums in France, a country that doesn’t scoff when people who are best known as actors turn to song. You wouldn’t call Moreau a “great” singer, but why do you need to? Her voice has the pleasant texture of summertime sand, and her expansive expressiveness fills every line.

Along the way, Moreau also talked, and the interviews she gave were often rich with words to live by. In that regard, among her fellow actresses she’s rivaled perhaps only by Marlene Dietrich. Here is Moreau on the futility of thinking too hard about acting: “One should never search for meaning in a script. When the work is over, the meaning comes out by itself.” A favorite subject was the nature of love and its power to shape us. Plenty of men adored Moreau — her loves included Malle, Truffaut, Lee Marvin, and fashion designer Pierre Cardin — but if her heart was ever broken, as all hearts inevitably are, that suffering became part of the wholeness of her spirit. “I would like to have a really big house,” she said in 1965, “where I could live with a man I loved, and where there’d be enough space for every man I’d ever loved in the past to have a room to himself, and we’d all live there together.” It’s a crazy idea, until you look deep into her eyes and see how many rooms they contain.

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