Editor’s note: We revisit this commentary from 2010 in honor of the publication of Diabolique, which plays as part of our Criterion Collection titles under the “Vengeful Women” theme this week and next.
1. ‘I got old the way women who aren’t actresses get old.’
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 nineteen 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 A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975 edition): “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.
2. ‘What the American audience—particularly older moviegoers—responds to in Signoret is not so much her talent but her moral authority as a woman.’
Signoret attracts a diverse group of fans. “In my memory, no actor or actress had Truth with a capital T and with more selflessness than Simone Signoret,” says the actor Michael Moriarty, in a lovely ode to this most famously left-wing of actresses that is intercut with an anti-Obama philippic.
“I suppose it is fair to say that I fell hopelessly in love with Simone Signoret the very first time I clapped eyes on her in a modest Ealing film called Against the Wind…I placed her then on the very peak of her profession, and as far as I am concerned she has never budged from it,” said Dirk Bogarde.
3. ‘I do not have a life of celebrity. You know, I was given roles to play, I was happy and I ate my fill, there is nothing else to say.’
Throughout her career Signoret’s face, alluring and dissipated, with its slightly slanted eyes and wide mouth, seemed to hint at a ravenous hunger for sex. In fact, in the early films in particular, it was quite the opposite—it was sex being used to stave off hunger, as she frequently played prostitutes. “Even on those occasions when she was not taking money for it,” wrote David Shipman, “her love was illicitly sought.” Before La Ronde, one of her early parts of substance was in Dedee d’Anvers, set in an Antwerp whorehouse. After La Ronde, she had her best role in Casque d’Or as another lady of the evening; in Jacques Becker’s superb love story she went from careless to heartbroken without a single false note.
4. ‘She never knew to what degree I never detested her, and how thoroughly I had understood the story that was no one’s business but ours, the four of us.’
—Simone Signoret on her husband Yves Montand’s affair with Marilyn Monroe
Signoret fills almost fifteen pages of Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, her autobiography, with warmly forgiving thoughts on Monroe, the married sex symbol who slept with Montand. In life Signoret was no delicate, easily bruised gardenia. In her films, however, again and again, she plays women undone by love. She won her Oscar, the first to go to a woman who had never made an American film, as the housewife used then scorned by Laurence Harvey’s ruthless climber in Room at the Top.
Together with Oskar Werner, she was the main reason to watch Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, as their hopeless lovers, in Shipman’s words, “acted the rest of the cast below decks and out of sight.” In Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s Diabolique, for once Signoret herself manages a string of betrayals, but escape eludes her, as it almost always does. In Army of Shadows, she chooses love for her daughter, fatally, over love of country. In a film full of wrenching ends, hers is the most painful of all.
5. ‘So I had said yes and then later had said no to Therese Raquin, and…in the very well kept files of Marcel Carne, I was surely classified as ‘that pain in the ass who doesn’t know what she wants.’’
Therese Raquin belongs to Marcel Carne’s later period; Signoret had a bit part in his Les Visiteurs du Soir and described him as “the emperor of cinema,” walking down a row of extras and saying “You can go, you can go…” Signoret stayed, and years later she accepted the role in the updated Zola on condition that Carne direct.
It’s a role that combines almost all of Signoret’s qualities. Her seething decorum as she walks around her domestic cage shows the knowledge that a parasitic husband will steal her beauty and energy even more surely than time. She embraces Rafe Vallone for the first time not in a frenzy of pent-up lust, but like a weary woman finally sinking into a bath.
In her best scene in the movie, and one of the greatest of her career, Signoret spoon-feeds her paralyzed, voiceless mother-in-law (played by Sylvie, one of the few actresses ever to overplay a scene merely by not blinking). As she does, she pours out her rage over the people who chained her to a life of drudgery and demanded that she be grateful for it. Signoret almost never escaped, it is true; but for her, struggle itself was triumph.
Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren, and is co-host of For the Love of Film Noir: The Film Preservation Blogathon.