Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

     This article is going to discuss how the image of Jeanne Moreau through her roles, might have differed from the usual representations of women in movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Two of her roles will be analysed: Jeanne Tournier in Les Amants (1958) and Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962). Both films belong to the French New Wave, and Moreau is believed to have given the most complex portrayal of feminity of this cinematographic movement. These films have been chosen as her reputation was based on them for the entirety of her career. This study will discuss Jules et Jim as a support of the arguments put forward regarding ss, which will be the main focus of analysis. Previous to these films, Moreau’s choices as an actress in the 1950s had already been outside of the box knowing popular cinema was at its peak and female roles were marked out. However, with Malle’s Les Amants and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, she was propelled to the rank of an embodiment of women’s liberation. Her star image became ruled by the idea of the sexualised, threatening woman. This article will set to explore the extent and the ways in which this image, paired with her roles in Les Amants et Jules et Jim, have defied the gender and class norms of the cinema and society of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In order to do so, motherhood and marital expectations will be discussed, followed by a look into woman and sexuality, through the imagery of the flood and water as well as the concepts of the Red woman and the femme fatale, and ultimately the representations of bourgeoisie and the working-class will be contrasted in Les Amants.

This part of the article will focus on the concept of motherhood and how it is explored in Les Amants. In Germany, the scenes of the movie where Jeanne can be seen with her daughter were cut out, it was not considered acceptable for a married mother to have an affair. Mothers had a desexualised status, and as such, they could not be seen being motherly and sexual at the same time. Theweleit theorised this in his book Male Fantasies, Volume I. According to him, “mothers are queens around the house, workers serving their husbands, whores for daddy”. Publicly, mothers were thus to remain sexless while satisfying their husbands behind closed doors. The figure of the mother has been associated with the concept of the white countess: an idealised and ethereal presence, often characterised by elegant and expressionless women. The mother must be loving and caring yet have a cold, distantly heroic side. By representing a mother not only being sexual but being so with two men other than her husband, Malle went against this preconceived notion. The scene in which Bernard, the lover with whom she leaves, and Jeanne go back to the house after their lovemaking (Fig.1), exemplifies the dilemma at hand. 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 1

The dominant feature in this shot is the cross, which catches the eye of the viewer by being placed at the centre but also by its glistening. It serves as a reminder that this is a Christian home, where one should follow Christian values. On the right side of the cross lies her child, that she is expected to care of and dedicate her life to. On the other side, his body positioned towards the exit is her lover. She has already planned to leave with him. The cross, therefore, stands as a reminder of the values she is going against. With the shot framing, Jeanne is left with a choice. She can either go back to her daughter, the path she belongs on or goes straight, following the path she has chosen. Tournier eventually goes into the room to tuck her daughter in and say goodbye then leaves with Bernard. She has turned away from her duties as a mother. This is an example of a scene that was cut in Germany, for it explores Jeanne’s love and tenderness for her child while she refuses to continue to take on the role of a mother.

Both Les Amants and Jules et Jim are examples of failed marriages. Cousins points out that “if there is a theme in her work, it is that love does not last”. After World War II, during which family values were encouraged, the idea of a failed marriage was looked down upon. Les Amants has been described as a film about the “upper-class ennui of a housewife who abandons herself into an achingly sensual affair”. Adding to the idea of her ennui is also the desire for Jeanne to be whole. She wants to exist outside of her marriage. In her everyday life, she is only seen as her husband’s wife. An example of this can be seen when she visits the newspaper factory her husband works for (Fig.2). 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 2

Even though Jeanne is the dominant feature of this shot, her placement on the side of the frame allows the viewer to examine the workers in the back. She is scrutinised because she is a “femme de”. This what she is known has. Her boredom and identity crisis lead her to take on a first lover, Raoul, but that double life does not satisfy her, and she cannot be fulfilled. The night before she leaves, as she combs her hair, the narrator lets the spectator know that “Elle eut soudain envie d’ être quelqu’un d’autre”. This is what brings her to wander around that night, to recover a sense of purpose long lost in her marriage. An interaction with her husband as he leaves for work (Fig.3) exemplifies the pressures of marital life and her disdain for them. 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 3

Jeanne and her reflection are both visible. Her husband has just told her that she looks sad. Upon hearing that she is not, he asks her “Pourquoi n’es-tu pas triste?”. The marriage has fallen apart, and he knows it. However, she is expected to stay, expected to indulge in her sadness in silence while taking care of her daughter and other marital duties. It appears that he is staring at her reflection. It shows a bourgeois woman, well dressed, wearing beautiful jewellery, her hair is nicely put together. Her reflection shows what is expected of her and what he wants from her. Similarly, in Jules et Jim, Catherine refuses to live in pretend happiness and requires freedom. Like Jeanne, who is desperately trying to find happiness, she is on an endless quest. Catherine abandons her first husband then kills her lover. Both have not offered her what she desires. After representing a woman willing to leave behind their child, the movies depict the desire to emancipate one’s self from the constraints of marriage.

Have Jeanne and Catherine defied motherhood and marital expectations, and thus gender norms? There is a refusal, in Les Amants, on Malle’s part to make specific moral judgements. Same goes for Truffaut and together they “observe society with disdain but have ambiguous endings that offer neither judgement of the characters nor a better model of behaviour”. In this sense, they make their female character stand out. Gray says of Catherine that she is “the first female free spirit we had seen on film” , while Robert Chazal considers Jeanne to demonstrate “une femme s’accomplir sans le moindre souci des convenances et de l’ordre établi”. Furthermore, in both movies, Moreau’s character drives all the action and motivate the activities of the men, which was an unusual occurrence in movies of the French New Wave, which usually featured women as objects rather than subjects and male heroes – for example À bout de souffle. In this regard, Jeanne and Catherine can be seen as defying gender norms through their refusal to conform to what is expected of them in terms of motherhood and marital expectations.

Having discussed the challenging of gender norms through motherhood and marital expectations, this research will now explore the idea of woman and sexuality. The flood and water imagery to symbolise woman’s sexuality is an often-used device in cinema, and Les Amants is a prime example of that. The movie opens with the Carte de tendre, a map drawn by Madeleine de Scudéry in the 17th century. It is an allegory that represents spatially the desire of women to chart out and in some ways, control their own lives. The different bodies of water represent different stages of a woman’s sexuality. The “Lake of Indifference” represents her marriage, the boredom that it now inspires her. If the movie were to be thought of spatially, she would be navigating the space of bourgeois France in the 1950s and breaking away from tradition until reaching “Unknown land”, the path she decides to take when she leaves with Bernard. During the opening credits (Fig.4), Moreau’s name is framed between “Lac d’Indifférence” and “Dangereuse”, foreshadowing the journey her character is about to go on. 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 4

Throughout the movie, water imagery is thus used as a symbol for female sexual awakening, from a still and circumscribed stream (Fig.5) to a large and threatening body of water exemplified by the lovers standing next to a roaring waterwheel (Fig.6). 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 5

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 6

The imagery of the flood is present all throughout the movie, made explicit in key scenes. It also includes the drift down the millstream in a boat and the bath they take together. Baths are usually symbols of cleanliness, but here it stands as a repudiation of the constraint of being, as mentioned in the first part of this article, the white countess. Water also holds an essential role in the symbolism of Jules et Jim. Of course, Catherine commits suicide and simultaneously kills Jim by driving into a lake, which links the imagery of flood and water with the figures of the Red woman and femme fatale. However, the scene filmed by the Seine where Jules, Jim and Catherine can be seen coming out of the theatre (Fig.7) allows for another analysis of the symbolism of water. 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 7

Jules is quoting passages from Baudelaire, notably one calling women “petites salopes”. Moreau’s character proceeds to call them idiots then confront Jim for not protesting against his friend’s words and as he retorts “Je proteste”, she deliberately jumps in the Seine. Right before she does so (Fig.7), she is placed on the right side of the frame, with the men on the left side, which reinforces the gap there currently is between them. The high contrast lighting reinforces her position as the dominant feature of this shot. She appears to be towering over them as they walk behind her. At this moment, she is cornered between the men she presently resents and the Seine. As an act of protestation and emancipation, she jumps. Water can thus be thought of as a representation of women’s sexuality but also, in both cases, even though in different ways, as a symbol for emancipation and freedom.

As Jim risks his life to save Catherine after she jumps into the river, then later loses his life in the lake she has driven into, the symbolism of water and flood can be closely linked to the notion of the Red woman in both Jules et Jim and Les Amants. Earlier, the notion of the white countess was mentioned. In opposition is the idea of the Red woman. Because of the orgasm scene in Les Amants, Moreau’s star image has been associated with sexual pleasure. The “film that shocked the world” because of its portrayal of cunnilingus meant that Moreau now embodied passion and pleasure. She was thought of like a Red woman. Red women are corporal and derive their power from fears of feminity. They are explicitly sexualised. Often, they are associated with communism and working classes which will be discussed in the last part of this study. The concept of the Red woman derives from the red nurses. The Red Cross sent them to Germany during the Russian revolution. Simultaneously, brothels were shut down in Oberhausen, and it was assumed the nurses came from these and were thus prostitutes. An official newsletter of the Army District Command, dated April 1st, 1920, reported they were armed. This created a fear of the sexual woman. This fear, paired with prevalent Christian morals at the time, explains why the American Legion of Decency banned Jules et Jim. American newspapers criticised it for its lack of morals. To get a full picture, it is also essential to mention the notion of the femme fatale. Even though Moreau has argued her image should be one of a “femme libre”, it is the concept of femme fatale that has stuck. A femme fatale is defined as being “the lethal woman who, as beautiful and terrifying as Medusa, continues to haunt the unconscious of the patriarchy”. Of course, she is seen as such because she was precisely fatal for Jim in Truffaut’s movie but also because of, as just mentioned through the Red woman, there existed a correlation between female sexuality danger and fear. Le Tourbillon, the song Moreau sings as the men in her life, including her lover Albert, Jules and Jim, sit in her living room, is a representation of that fear. The lyrics include “femme fatale qui m’ fût fatal” as well as “sa voix si fatale”. The song discusses lovers who come in and out of each other’s lives. The woman of this on and off couple is described, as mentioned, as a femme fatale. The hovering fear of not being able to resist this woman scares the man, but he repeatedly falls for her regardless. In the notion of the Red woman and the femme fatale, there is a sense of blaming women for having sexual desires or active sexuality. Catherine being a sexual woman who later murders her lover and kills herself, desperate of not having found happiness, it can be argued that the character comes off as having been punished for her sexual freedom, and therefore nuance this role as defying gender norms.

Having acknowledged that, Moreau has been called “a pre-feminist symbol of liberation and sexual freedom” and Les Amants as well as Jules et Jim display traits of liberal feminism. She is the central character; she motivates all scenes. She is shown as unsatisfied with the paths that society has carved out for her – mother, wife, mistress. She struggles against patriarchal constraints, fights against objectification and decides to give her pleasure priority. Therefore, Jeanne Tournier and Catherine can be seen as having challenged gender norms through their portrayal of female sexuality. However, some of their characteristics fall in line with the stereotypes conveyed at the time.

Following the idea that the movies exhibit traits of liberal feminism, Malle’s mise en scène in Les Amants shows Jeanne as objectified by her status. She wears elegant gowns and can be seen surrounded by picture frames in her home. After her husband was called for a work emergency, Jeanne walks up her spiral staircase. As she stops once reaching its end (Fig.8), the depicted woman behind her appears to be looking straight down at her. 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 8

Nothing in this shot attracts the eye of the spectator but Jeanne and the painting, illuminated by the ceiling light, which contrasts with the dark wood and otherwise plain walls. This is a portrait of a noblewoman of her husband’s family. In the same scene, Jeanne straightens a painting then stares at it (Fig.9). 

Jeanne Moreau: how she defied gender and class norms

Figure 9

From what is visible in this shot, this is another one of these noblewomen. In this vertically composed shot with a deep focus allowing to look into the corridor, the spectator is given an insight into Jeanne’s life, a perfectly organised and calculated life. The painted women she faces represent upper-class female role models that she does not and cannot live up to. Moreau has been compared to Madame Bovary for her discontent of the French bourgeoisie as Jeanne Tournier. It is necessary to point out that the reactions to Les Amants from the bourgeoisie the character is supposed to depict were negative. Malle said himself that the first half of his movie was a satire on the conventions of the upper-class in France in the late 1950s which partly explains the negative reactions. However, it is possible to think of this reaction as being one of rejection of the image depicted of the bourgeois woman specifically. As Moireau describes it, “il est probable qu’en 1958, on acceptait mal qu’une riche bourgeoise abandonne du jour au lendemain son mari, son enfant, sa maison pour suivre un homme dont elle venait à peine de faire connaissance”. Moreover, Bernard has rejected his distant and bourgeois relatives and therefore, the bourgeois lifestyle. The class difference is shown at the dinner the characters share. As Jeanne, her husband, Raoul and her friend all wear black. Bernard is in a light-grey jacket. Arriving for dinner, the guests have all entered through the same door. He has come from a different one. The framing and costume place him outside of their world. By following him, Jeanne Tournier’s status within society is impacted. The change can be noted physically, with her pearls, large hats and gowns left behind when she leaves. Post-war France was obsessed with the discourse of cleanliness and aimed to purify and modernise the country. There were attempts to cleanse the country and measures aimed at women such as closing down brothels in Paris. Morian talks about the decolonisation of the peasant woman and the development of a filth complex on the part of working-class women. Building onto that post-war shame towards working-class women, linked to the concept of the Red woman, is the idea that women of the ruling-class provide the grounds for desire while women of a lower-class provide the material for male fears. This results in long-lasting assimilation of working-class women with prostitutes. Jeanne having followed a man of a lower-class, she becomes assimilated with the working-class. This is a thought that, after exploring the perception of proletarian women, better explains where Moireau was coming from.

Having stated that questions whether or not Jeanne Moreau defied the class norms as an actress. Vincendeau believes she is “the ideal woman of the modern intellectual bourgeoisie”. Therefore, it can be said that Moreau did challenge bourgeois norms and conventions through her roles, notably in the Les Amants. However, this requires nuance, as she did represent an intellectual bourgeoisie. Indeed, the women she portrays are alluring because they are cultured and thus represent an elite. The refusal, as mentioned previously, on Malle’s part to apply judgement or a moral to his film, could nevertheless be considered as a mind-opener on the possibility for noblewomen to desire a less-codified lifestyle. This attempt, paired with Moreau’s “refusal to be domesticated, decolonised or cleaned up”, can be considered as rather defying class norms.

This article has explored the extent and the ways in which Jeanne Moreau through her roles have defied gender and class norms, looking primarily at Les Amants as well as at Jules et Jim. First, by discussing motherhood and marital expectations and concluding that her roles did defy gender norms in such regards. Later woman and sexuality were looked into, and the analysis of the imagery of the flood and water as well as the notions of the Red woman and the femme fatale brought the conclusion that this defiance of gender norms was nuanced. The same conclusion was reached regarding class norms when contrasting the representations of the bourgeoisie and the working-class in Les Amants.

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