Three legends of the French cinema took their final bows in 2017, all long-lived with astoundingly lengthy careers to match. Danielle Darrieux even made it to 100 at her death in October, 86 years after her film debut. Jeanne Moreau, the most acclaimed, died at 89 in July, her passing announced in a tweet from President Macron, and Jean Rochefort also died in October, aged 87.
Jeanne Moreau [her real name] was recognizable for her slightly pouty expression, her distinctive voice, and her wide range. She also had the knack of always projecting, no matter what the role demanded, an unswerving sense of honesty. In her performances, she in fact seemed incapable of dishonesty or artifice. Over many years of continuous work, world travels, and career high points, she lived the life of a screen legend in her own time.
Born in Paris in 1928, she was the daughter of a restaurateur and an Englishwoman with Irish roots, who had danced at the Folies Bergeres. Still, Jeanne's father disapproved of her desire to act, even when at 19 she became the youngest-ever performer at the Comedie-Francaise. Twenty-seven roles in four years followed, not to mention her film debut and a brief marriage that resulted in her only child, Jerome Richard, a former actor and now a painter in California. Moreau made no bones about putting her career first, although she said in recent years that she and her son had come to an understanding.
It was the films of Louis Malle, with whom she was also in love, that brought her to legendary status, starting with "Elevator to the Gallows"  and "The Lovers" , followed by Francois Truffaut's triumphant "Jules and Jim" , the ultimate symbol of the French New Wave. International film work followed, including collaborations with Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Along the way Moreau also recorded pop songs and took up directing,
Although she had many friends there, brushes with Hollywood were less successful. Her marriage with younger director William Friedkin ["The Exorcist"] was brief, and she walked off the set of the TV series "ER." Despite her exhaustive filmography, there were no Academy Award nominations, and only one Cesar award, as best actress in "The Old Woman Who Walked in the Sea" , playing an elderly con artist who entices a handsome young man to become her accomplice.
Fluent in English and Italian as well as French, Moreau was eminently quotable for years. She once said, "They will write 'Amant de "Jules and Jim"' on my gravestone," and she was probably right.
Jean Rochefort ranks, in some quarters, as more of a fixture than an icon. French cinema often seems to allow its actors to settle on a single persona which repeats in every movie; for some, like Isabelle Huppert, who carries her own electric charge, the result is riveting. For Rochefort, it was less so, but there's an awful lot of that persona to be found, and enjoyed, in over 100 films made over more than half a century, in addition to his stage work.
What he lacked in range he made up for with reliability. Rochefort appeared in many dramas but his slightly goofy, stolid comic presence, accented from 1972 onwards with a drooping mustache, was what French audiences came to count on.
Born in 1930, he entered acting full-time after a stint in the army. Along the way he had two children in each of two marriages, plus a fifth child, a son, with actress Nicole Garcia in his fifties. Decades of work on stage and screen followed. Rochefort was featured in a rogues' gallery of costume pieces, farces, sex comedies, and dramas. His dream job, to play Don Quixote for director Terry Gilliam in 1998, was cancelled due to Rochefort's illness and other production problems. What may be his best film from his later years was the Oscar-nominated "Ridicule" , a cerebral costume farce starring Charles Berling. Among his last works were voice-acting for animation, but one of his last dramas came in 2012, "The Artist and the Model." As an elderly artist in the south of France quietly beguiled by a young woman who arrives at his isolated house, Rochefort displays a kind of wary involvement in a resonant and emotional way. Perhaps the warmth of co-star Claudia Cardinale's presence allowed him to appear a bit more open than usual. Or perhaps this was a performance that showed the wisdom of age, of an 82-year-old actor portraying an old man who realizes that he has spent most of his life living for art alone. This can hardly be true of Rochefort himself, but his sympathy with the part feels real.
Danielle Darrieux [also her real name] was a doctor's daughter [he died young] and a student of song, dance, and the cello. It was her outstanding beauty that brought her a film contract at 14, in 1931. "Mayerling," with Charles Boyer, the true story of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austrian throne and his young mistress in 1889, brought her international acclaim on its release in early 1936, presenting her to audiences with an aura of romance and glamour. Next came a trip to Hollywood, but this was brief and she soon returned. She would go back again, also briefly, in the early 1950s. During the war Darrieux stayed in occupied Paris and continued to work in film, even as the Nazis dominated the industry. Along with such stars as Arletty and Maurice Chevalier, she faced criticism as a collaborationist, but they all continued their careers after the Liberation. There were also two marriages for Darrieux up to this time, before settling into a four-decade-plus marriage that produced a son, her only child.
After the war and her second Hollywood sojourn, came the classic "The Earrings of Madame de...," directed by Vittorio De Sica and again co-starring Charles Boyer [in one of his few French outings since becoming a Hollywood star in 1937], and De Sica himself. This dramedy of nineteenth-century manners and adultery has remained an unequalled legend. Despite the non-stop and lengthy career that followed, Darrieux never quite followed up this artistic success, although she continued to appear onscreen until 2010. In fact, she played Catherine Deneuve's mother five times. She even appeared in a Broadway musical in 1970, as Coco Chanel in "Coco," as the replacement for its original star, Katharine Hepburn. She also sang onscreen and in concert, in the 1960s.
At one point in "Mayerling," the camera moves in and offers Darrieux in a lengthy close-up, as her doomed character attends a concert. In the full bloom of her beauty, Darrieux is shown in a quiet and iconic moment that defines romance; it is perhaps even a moment that defines the meaning of movies. She lived for more than eighty years after filming that scene, but it will remain in the memory forever.
Lawrence Green is an actor and freelance writer in Richmond, BC.