Monday, December 27, 2010

Fandor: Simone Signoret



An actress who loses her looks should not be a matter of distress for a critic, unless she loses her talent or a limb along with them, but Signoret’s rapid descent from siren status has always drawn comment. The up-all-night beauty of the prostitute in La Ronde, one of her first major hits, can barely be glimpsed in the exhausted Resistance operative of Army of Shadows 19 years later. Yet the latter film (directed by Jean-Pierre Melville) also revealed that Signoret’s acting, always good, had only deepened.

Blunter than most was David Thomson in the 1975 A Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Gallantry cannot conceal the thought that few women, so dazzling at thirty, have faded so much by fifty.” And reading that entry, few women can conceal an ungallant thought such as, “Hey, Mr. Clooney, at least Signoret started out gorgeous.” Still, Thomson may be grasping an actual point by the wrong end. There’s something heroic in a woman–-Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Marianne Faithfull–-who takes great beauty, smokes it down to the filter and grinds it out under her sole.

Refusing to preserve beauty tells society–-tells men-–that the thing valued above all in a woman is what should be discarded, and not the woman herself. Perhaps Thomson isn’t wrong to write of the “cinematic tragedy” of Signoret’s lost loveliness as though it were a personal affront; in a sense, it is.


From the Siren's essay about Simone Signoret, which can be read in its entirety here at Fandor. Please do leave a comment there as well. This one was a pleasure to write for many reasons, primarily because Signoret's best movies are so good, and Signoret so marvelous in them. One of her best performances, in Marcel Carne's modern version of Therese Raquin, can be viewed through Fandor's subscription service. But the Siren also confesses that as a fan of Signoret, she has been waiting a good long while to express her opinion of Mr. Thomson's entry on the great French actress. Now that the Siren has done so, death--well, it will still sting. But somewhat less so.

40 comments:

Dan Leo said...

This is what I love about you, Farran -- you make me want to go back and re-watch movies I haven't seen since my college days when I would go watch double bills of classic movies at one of Philly's rep houses (now sadly gone) two or three nights a week, and you make me want to seek out ones that I somehow have missed all these years!

And, yeah, Signoret was great. Boy, the French actresses of those days ( Jeanne Moreau) -- they brought this sense of world-weariness, but also world-knowingness...

The Siren said...

Aw thank you Dan, what a nice compliment. One of the things I like about these two new gigs (Fandor and Nomad) is that it's forcing me to look at some things I hadn't in a long time. When I got the Signoret assignment I couldn't think of a single good reason I had never written a word about her here. Yes, she and Moreau both exude everything you want a French woman to be.

Peter Nellhaus said...

My introduction to Mlle. Signoret was the film Term of Trial. I was eleven, and the star had already put on weight. Not the best introduction for a variety of reasons.

I have since seen more of her films, both older and more recent. All I can say about David Thomson is that apparently he hasn't grown up yet, while as I get older, I sometimes surprise myself by ever flexible ideas about female beauty.

The Siren said...

Peter, my edition of BDOF is the original; it's possible he's revised it, but I liked the old one for a number of different reasons, that entry excepted. I didn't think mentioning her changed looks was itself out of bounds, it was his attitude that of course it lessened her screen impact that grated. I challenge anyone to sit through Army of Shadows and defend that viewpoint. I'm also told that Le Chat is quite something; another I want to see is Maneges, where apparently her character is an unbelievably bad lot.

joe said...

I have the 2004 edition of Thomson, and the "Gallantry cannot conceal..." line is still there. The whole first paragraph laments her lost hotness. He lists "Army of Shadows" without comment. All he says about that movie in the Melville entry is that it "subtly turns the underworld into the Resistance."

The Siren said...

Joe, how very nice of you to check for me, thank you so much! It's most appreciated. I strongly doubted I was doing Mr. Thomson an injustice but when someone publishes five editions of a book it's only fair to note which one you are using, so I was also glad Peter reminded me of that. Another day, another reason to be grateful for my commenters.

Miss Beth G. said...

Your piece reminds me I need to read my copy of Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be. I picked it up at a used book sale. I like reading actresses' memoirs, especially when they contain surprises--like honest reflections.

I, too, bristle at the idea that Signoret's changed appearance diminished her cinematic impact. The woman could act period, and while cinematic loveliness of a youthful face has its draw, that does not mean that aging or aged faces cannot be at least as fascinating, and their presence opens the screen up showing different types of stories.

Then again it's been assumed that audiences don't mind seeing the rugged or unconventional-looking leading man, even back in the studio days, so really I'm for extending the same amount of screen time to showing their female equivalents and their stories, and not sidelining them to only character roles.

And what about loosening up today's beauty standards for female character actors? How can a film's central character be less than physically perfect when her supporting cast are being held to higher beauty standards, too?

It is sad that aging actresses or those don't age well get discarded like old books, but it's nice to know there are those like you who treasure both.

Anyway, I will have to watch Army of Shadows after your recommendation. I missed its theatrical re-release, but I'm sure that means there's a good DVD edition.

Vanwall said...

"Army of Shadows" was full of used-up faces, and Signoret was just one of the tableau, and in fact was so much more believable when paired with another fave of mine, Lino Ventura, who's life was writ on his face as much as Signoret's - like a Roman Patrician's bust, nothing was left out and reality was the true art.

I am disturbed by the measuring stick of M. Thomson; perhaps he should have it cracked across his knuckles, which are dragging on the ground in the statement referenced.

The Siren said...

MissBethG, Nostalgia is a wonderful book, very honest and funny, although there are things she keeps private for sure. Her reflections on Montand, for example, are long on philosophical asides, short on day to day detail. But it's a marveous read. I also wonder why the "Eve Arden" part in a movie often goes to a woman who's as perfect-looking as the lead these days. But character parts in general aren't what they used to be.

Vanwall, it's so true, Army of Shadows is full of characters who have been blasted by life. It's funny, it blew away almost everyone who saw it since its re-release, and yet contemporary reviews were quite snooty. To me there wasn't a bad performance in the lot and the look of the thing, the incredible use of pacing, the long long takes; just a masterpiece.

gmoke said...

What's sad about an aging actress is one who refuses to age. Botox and plastic surgery make their faces into doll's masks.

But then, I may have been warped by my admiration and love for my grandmother who lamented her wrinkles in the mirror while I loved every single one since they spelled out her strong and generous nature and history.

Pity Faye Dunaway and Nicole Kidman who have frozen their faces not Signoret and Moreau and Mercouri and so many others who have let character enrich all of their aspects.

Arthur S. said...

In its day, ARMY OF SHADOWS, released at the time of the student protests, was seen as a conservative nostalgia movie on the Resistance(when it is anything BUT). Melville at that time had fallen out with the New Wave gang and his films got bad reviews at Cahiers in the 60s. So that was why they pounced on it. The other criticism, from the conservatives was that Melville having made gangster movies made the Resistance to be a kind of mob.

Of course since then, time has passed and Jacques Rivette said that after seeing the film on TV he realized that he underestimated Melville.

Simone Signoret is a great part of why the film is great especially the astonishing final scene. Among her earlier films, she always seemed her most beautiful in Jacques Becker's CASQUE D'OR.

David Thomson's rhetorical flourish always stands in the way of good taste and judgment. His dismissal of Simone Signoret is only one of many unkind words he parcels in his much overrated Biographical Dictionary. Other french actresses who did great work as they age is Danielle Darrieux(in her films with Jacques Demy), Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve who remains the most beautiful actress in Europe(she was terrific in LE VENT DE LA NUIT which I saw today).

JustJoan said...

There is an almost Collette-ish quality to Laurance Harvey's relationship with Signoret in "Room at the Top." Far more of a cad than poor Cheri in "The Last of Cheri," I still always thought given his druthers Harvey would have wanted to stay with SS.

Karen said...

This lovely excerpt reminds me of the piece you posted recently on FB about Bardot. There is more to a woman's beauty than its externals, thank heavens.

JustJoan said...

When I was a teenager in Philadelphia, spending my after-school hours in a foreign film house on Germantown Avenue, I fell in girl-love with Delphine Seyrig in "Last Year in Marienbad." Years later, I fell in love with her again as the entrancing Fabienne Tabard in Truffaut's "Stolen Kisses." Her face, her voice have haunted me all my life.

Skimpole said...

One Signoret performance that doesn't get enough respect is in "The Confession."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Beauty fades. Talent deepens.

DavidEhrenstein said...

In his marvelous book about songwriting, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says that the young Jason Alexander (who made his debut in Merrily We Roll Along) was "born middle-aged." The same can be said of Jeanne Moreau -- and Simone Signoret.
Neither was ever "pretty." One might be able to cocktail-up a certain "handsomeness" in them but that would be stretching. They're compelling. One can't take one's eyes off them because one never knows what they'll do from one moment to the next. Charlotte Rampling (far more conventionally beautiful from the start) has that same quality --now as she grows older even more so. When she was young she starred in Patrice Chereau's film of James Hadley Chase's insane sequel to his No Orchids For Miss Blandish -- Flesh of the Orchid Her co-stars were Edwige Feulliere, Alida Valli, Eve Francis and Simone Signoret. Every one a "mature (and in the case of Francis far more than that) "leading lady."

I also love Signoret in Le Chat, a Simenon adaptation in whcih she co-stars with Jean Gabin. They play an elderly couple who LOATHE one another. Heaven!

Tom Carson said...

Oh, Siren -- please spare yourself the latest iteration of BDOF. The earlier revisions added some very good new stuff, but the newest edition is so Blimpish it's painful. For instance, the entry on Wong Kar-Wai includes a joke about Chinese food -- yes, *that* joke about Chinese food. Another great mind snapped by irritation with what the young'uns are into, if you ask me.

KC said...

I just enjoyed a well-ripened Signoret in The Widow Couderc. If I could believe that Alain Delon would fall for her, then she must have still possessed a great deal of beauty. Sometimes it just doesn't swat you in the eye. Eh, sometimes I dig Thomson, sometimes he irks me. It's a Pauline Kael kind of thing.

The Siren said...

General observation re: Thomson-he is an odd, odd duck. There are observations in BDOF that are sheer breathtaking brilliance, just absolutely, perfectly right. There are others where I wonder if he even LIKES film; to get so little out of Ford, for example, is bizarre to me. Even the anti-Fordians of my acquaintance, and I know and love several, acknowledge the man's peerless camera eye.

And then, there are sentences from Thomson where I simply do not understand WTF he is saying. I read and I re-read and still I think, "I see a subject. I see a verb. I do not comprehend any part of what is happening between the two."

The Siren said...

David E., indeed, talent does deepen. I have to say that I think Signoret in youth was authentically stunning. And she retained her amazing sensuality for many, many years, well beyond the time when she could still lay claim to conventional youthful allure.

joe said...

Siren, I'm with you on Thomson's incomprehensibility. I feel the same way about Manny Farber, and I used to be a bit ashamed of that, but then I read the Senses of Cinema interview with Dave Kehr, where he says: "[Farber] was an interesting writer and a great phrasemaker, but I don't know what he's talking about half the time." I felt better after that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well I knew Manny personally and half the fun was trying to figure out what he was saying more than half the time.

Delon falling for Signoret is perfectly logical as they are both massive movie icons. Who else could he fall for? "Some car-hop? Some dress extra?"

X. Trapnel said...

May I venture a defense of David Thomson? I went back to to the offending BDOF entry on Signoret and found it less "personal" than others did, and more concerned with matters of "truth" and "beauty" that lay at the heart of film whether commercial or "art." I must confess that I can't look at the young Signoret and the older without feeling that something has been lost (Re Arthur S's comment: Darrieux, Huppert, and Deneuve at 50 were stunningly beautiful women by any standard except the Amurrican adolescent). Thomson's point as I read it is that physical beauty (in Casque d'Or, Diabolique, La Ronde) can be as much a source of truth and substance as realistic aging. Ever since Plato and then buttressed by Christianity, and still later with a further boost from Kantian aesthetics and institutional modernism we are conditioned to be distrustful of conventional beauty (as if beauty is ever conventional) as a snare and deception (certain church fathers feared that the beauty of sacred music might distract from the message; their Frankfurt School avatars condemn modern tonal music as a capitalistic/fascistic plot). Critics of Hollywood films(meaning the ones we all love) have always battened on their reliance on physical beauty and glamour (as opposed to the truth of maggoty meat). All this by way of saying that as humans beauty will always draw us and even provoke the imagination toward a vision of goodness (Keats had it right) with the tragic knowledge that beauty, like happiness is fleeting.

Personally I was drawn to film by the beauty of Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood and Robin Hood (or should I have preferred Una O'Connor in the name of higher truth) which adds a twinge of guilt to my current Fontaine-ism.

rudyfan1926 said...

Must chime in congrats on the recent nod as best film blogger of 2010 and the excellent screen cap from The Razor's Edge. Happy New year Siren. May 2011 be wonderful and I am looking forward to and participating in the For the Love of Film Blogathon in February. Cheers and thanks for the great reading!

X. Trapnel said...

Today's Le Figaro has an interview with Madame DD with accompanying photo of immutable beauty.

Vanwall said...

M. X:

Eternal DD

X. Trapnel said...

Milles mercis, M. V, but the blasted Frenchies have placed an e-wall between the interview and le pauvre lecteur that no amount of passion and devotion can breach. I'm trying to read it from an enlarged xerox of the print version. The accomanying photo is truly enchanting.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The greatest of all D.D. fans is Paul Vecchili -- a brilliant French filmmaker little known outside of his own country. And not very much there either. Vecchili has always championed the making of small intimate films for very low budgets. In fact he has gone so far as to make a film entirely on the "advance sur recettes" that the government grants sundry productions.

Vecchiali's cache of D.D. memorabilia is so great and so legendary that when she came to star in one of his films, En Haute de Marches, her first question to him was "Well, where is it?" She wanted to see his files, knowing full well he had in it things she'd never seen before.

One of Vecchiali's most famous films is Femmes Femmes, a comedy about the lives of small time actresses starring Helene Surgere and Sonia Saviange (his cousin). They were both cast in Salo and Pasolini, being a Vecchiali fan, at one point stops the action to have them perform a scene from Vecchiali's film -- even though it has nothing to do with Sade or Fascist-era Italy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Vecchiali's most recent film is Bareback ou la guerre des sens(2006)

Hubba-Hubba.

gmoke said...

I believe I once requested a masthead picture of the elder Darrieux to grace the Siren's blog.

And, if I am not mistaken, that is Sheldon Leonard sitting at a table to the right and below the ravishing couple of Power and Tierney.

Someday, I have to see the Bill Murray version of "The Razor's Edge," a book I read and admired in my early teens.

The Siren said...

XT -I always appreciate a dissenting voice, as it makes a conversation more interesting. But I have to disagree with you here, my old friend. The opening sentence I quoted boils down to "oh come on, she looks like hell now and I don't want to watch her anymore." If we were talking about an actress whose main appeal was always her beauty, he'd still be snarky, but at least he'd have a case. The fact is, Signoret's acting was at least as great at 50 as at 30, so he's off base. Thomson calls her lost beauty a more cinematic tragedy than many of the causes she espoused. Considering the range of things she got involved in over the years, including civil rights, Algeria, and condemning the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring, that's just obnoxious in my book. Furthermore, my (admittedly testy) comparison of Thomson's looks to George Clooney was a reference to the fact that the supposedly huge importance of beauty isn't applied to male actors in the book, at least not in any entries that I saw. Part of the reason I chose the Army of Shadows still is that it shows that Signoret's face was still beautiful, albeit not in the way of the others you named. Beauty is indeed a fabulous thing to have in a movie, so it's a pity Thomson's definition, for women, comes across as so narrow.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

First of all, yes, Signoret's beauty is still very apparent in the picture you chose and second, I should make myself more familiar with her later work. I'll grant also that since physical beauty is so abundant in film (including the "artistic" stuff; think Bergman) it's hard to justify the word "tragedy" as per the "loss" of Signoret's. I should also have a look at S's memoirs (I've an obsessive interest in French culture politics. If anyone is interested [don't all jump up at once] in my belief that Louis Aragon's communism was actually a big surrealist joke clip this coupon and throw it away.)

In another backhanded defense of Thomson I would point out that he details the physical deterioration of male stars (Cooper, Bogart) with more relish than pity. Way back Gerard Jones expressed horror at the thought of the near-carrion Bogart coupling with Audrey Hepburn. Rough stuff, but don't we all feel something of the sort? I think Thomson's streak of ambivalence (he would call it "dismay") regarding film has to do with his own emotional assent to beautiful illusions that the intellect rejects. But isn't that the way off all art?

"We have art that we may not perish of truth"--Nietzsche

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I should have added that Thomson's comments on Cooper and Bogart (he can't stop referring to the latter's toupee) are in other of his books.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Bill Murray version is allas his "O Brother Where Art Thou" (by Sinclair Beckstein not the coens.)

Christopher Isherwood wrote a screenplay for the Goulding version -- which was appropriate as the book was ABOUT HIM. But Fox decided to go with Lamar Trotti instead. After all he was on staff, and Chris wasn't.

Years later he sent his screenplay to Bill Murray but never heard back from him.

Oh well.

Kent Jones said...

"ambivalence regarding film...[that] has to do with his own emotional assent to beautiful illusions that the intellect rejects" - therein lies my major problem with A BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM. I think it's a non-issue.

X. Trapnel said...

David,

I believe Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge was based on Gerald Heard, a mystically inclined litterateur of the period and friend of Isherwood and Aldous Huxley.

DavidEhrenstein said...

To some degree he was. Heard was a friend of Isherwood's too, nad he wrote about him quite a lot. But it was Isherwood who first fired the spark that set Maugham alight.

Christine said...

I love Simone! Regardless of what one might say of actresses' fading looks--I've noticed that french actresses continue to get strong parts well into their later years. French cinema respects an actor's true qualities over looks more than most film industries today.

KC said...

"Delon falling for Signoret is perfectly logical as they are both massive movie icons. Who else could he fall for? "Some car-hop? Some dress extra?"

Yes--of course it isn't a surprise that they got together, but what I said was that I *believed* in it. It actually isn't perfectly logical just because they are movie icons. Sometimes the chemistry isn't there, even if the script, and our expectations about movies dictate otherwise. That isn't the same thing as logic.