WASHINGTON — When she comes to town this weekend, Jeanne Moreau will be able to waltz through downtown Washington or Silver Spring, Md., without eliciting many backward glances. Passersby will register a well-preserved, fashionably dressed woman with a distinctive face. But a movie star? Extremely unlikely. The world belongs to Julia and J.Lo now. And Moreau, here to present two of her long-ago films at an American Film Institute retrospective, is a luminary from another era. She turns 76 today.
But there was that heady time when she was the latest rage from France, her face on the cover of Time magazine. She had appeared in two films that set the course for her Methuselah-long career: the 1957 Hitchcockian murder thriller "Elevator to the Gallows" and, two years later, "The Lovers," a controversial film in which she played a bored housewife who had an extramarital affair. In fine European tradition, Moreau and Louis Malle, the director of both films, had become lovers. This was in the late 1950s. Ike was president. And journalists were touting this French actress as, ooh la la, another Brigitte Bardot.
Except that she wasn't. Moreau, who worked with Francois Truffaut, Luis Bunuel, Elia Kazan, Jacques Demy, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey, John Frankenheimer and many others, was more than a sex symbol. She was the thinking person's movie siren, who worked with only the great filmmakers.
She was a leading stage actor at the Theatre Nationale Populaire before Malle introduced her to movie audiences. She played the Machiavellian Madame de Merteuil as a young vixen in an ocelot fur, in a 1960 version of "Dangerous Liaisons." This was when Glenn Close, who took the same role in Stephen Frears' 1988 version, was still a young teen.
She was the exotic, sexy Catherine in the famous love triangle in Truffaut's 1962 "Jules and Jim." And in what seems like a precursor of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," she was a murderously vengeful bride in Truffaut's "The Bride Wore Black." She played Mata Hari, that seductress of generals. She played women going to seed, compulsive gamblers, scheming maids -- she played whomever she wanted. She was liberated before that word became synonymous with feminism. She was a free agent who could play sexy, charming or plain evil. She had the freedom of any man.
As Celestine in the 1964 "Diary of a Chambermaid," Moreau is all eyes. A Parisian who has joined a big household in the country as a maid, she seems too smart, well dressed and refined for the job. What is she really after? When she learns that the groundsman has killed and raped a child, those mascara-lidded eyes size him up, then lower like curved canopies. It's the slowest eye blink in movie history and it's enough to let you know that not only has she got this guy's number but she's also already thinking about what she can do with that information. The real Celestine, her mystery, is emerging.
She's mysterious too in the 1963 "Bay of Angels" as Jackie, a peroxide blond who does whatever is necessary to keep herself in casino chips, even if it means seducing the croupier or Jean (Claude Mann), a bank clerk and neophyte to the games of gambling and love. The only trouble is, Jackie falls in love with Jean; the veteran gets sweet on the kid.
Moreau's ultimate facial feature, however, is her mouth: an upside-down crescent that seems to simultaneously suggest disapproval, petulance and sultriness. When she does smile, it's as if a statue has come to life, the plaster suddenly achieving great elasticity and animation. But look closer -- those aren't the perfect pearly whites of a movie star of today. They're the teeth -- almost the fangs -- of a she-animal.
And listen to the voice. Moreau's larynx seems to have been soaked in a brine made of single-malt whiskey, cigarette butts and peat. It is smoky and sensual. Which only makes everything she says even more profound, even sinister.
This was the voice I heard last week when Moreau, from her Paris home, indulged a reporter on the telephone about such things as her unconventional attractiveness, the passage of time and a few other memories. Her favorite movies, she said, include "Eva," the 1966 "Mademoiselle" (for Tony Richardson), "Bay of Angels," "Diary of a Chambermaid," the 1982 "Querelle" (for Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and of course, "Jules and Jim," which was "something very special. I don't know. It was just like music. It flowed. An incredible small symphony."
What was the secret of her attraction to directors, critics and fans? (You ask these softball questions of legends, especially on the phone.)
"I didn't have a pretty face," she said. "Maybe that's the reason people were interested and why I attracted so many directors. They came to me. I didn't come to them. I was attracted to them not just because they were attracted to me but because of their work....