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.