With her sensual, pouting mouth, her Gauloises-saturated voice, and her combination of sharp intelligence and smouldering sexuality, Jeanne Moreau, who has died aged 89, seemed to many the embodiment of French womanhood. Although by the early 1950s she was established on stage, Moreau achieved screen stardom only with her 20th film, Louis Malle’s first solo feature, Lift to the Scaffold (1958), as an actor who represented the spirit of emerging feminism. Her status was consolidated in Malle’s The Lovers, released later the same year, and reached a peak as Moreau, queen of the French New Wave, took the role of Catherine, object of the affections of the best friends of the title in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961).
According to the critic Derek Malcolm: “Moreau was the perfect choice for Catherine: she gives a performance full of gaiety and charm without conveying an empty-headed bimbo. She makes the watcher understand that this is no ordinary woman whom both men adore. It is possibly the most complete portrait of any feminine character in the entire oeuvre of the New Wave.”
Although Moreau seemed the archetypical French woman, she was half English; her mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a Lancashire lass, from Oldham. Kathleen was one of the high-stepping Tiller Girls, and it was while she was performing at the Folies Bergère in Paris that she met Anatole Moreau, a cafe owner. Kathleen became pregnant, they married, and their daughter Jeanne was born in Montmartre.
“I’m very proud of being half English and I think as time passes my best English qualities are more and more visible,” remarked Moreau. “I’m pleased I can be outrageous as only the English can be.” If being outrageous meant being her own woman, expressing her opinions unreservedly and having a number of well-publicised affairs, then she lived up to the epithet.
At first she wanted to be a dancer like her mother, but a visit to the Comédie-Française to see Marie Bell as…