Legendary French actress Simone Signoret, born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, had a five-decade career of more than sixty films; her unassailable talent in creating not only memorable but iconic female characters, including Jewish heroines, gives her an important place in twentieth-century cultural history. The Jewish nature of her activities is discernable primarily in projects she undertook during the last two decades of her life, especially the work she did in conjunction with Mosco Boucault’s documentary film Terrorists in Retirement, about a group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who, during World War II, formed an activist wing of the Communist Resistance in Paris and elsewhere. Her acclaimed novel Adieu Volodia evokes Jewish immigrant life in Paris between 1919 and 1942.
Simone Signoret, the legendary French actress known primarily for the ageless radical sensuality that she brought to the screen, deserves to be included in the pantheon of genuine Jewish heroines, notably for her film work and writing in the last twenty years of her life. Certainly her five-decade career of more than sixty films, her Leftist politics (which earned her and her husband Yves Montand [1921–1991] both the admiration of liberals around the world and vilification by the United States State Department), and her unassailable talent in creating not only memorable but iconic female characters, including Jewish heroines, give her an important place in twentieth-century cultural history.
The specific Jewish nature of Signoret’s activities, both on screen and off, was only gradually known to her public, discernable primarily in the projects she undertook during the last two decades of her life: a documentary about foreign Jewish resistance fighters during World War II, Terrorists in Retirement, by Bulgarian filmmaker Mosco Boucault (1983); her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be (1978), whose paradoxical title Signoret says she found as graffiti in New York City; her highly acclaimed second novel, Adieu Volodia (1985), which evokes Jewish immigrant life in Paris between 1919 and 1945 with extraordinary sensitivity and power; and two celebrated films where her presence evokes the strength and resilience of Jewish women, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) and Moshe Mizrahi’s Madame Rosa (1977).
Signoret’s particular commitment to issues of Jewish identity was largely absorbed in the general assessment of her career as an actress and an activist until specific emphasis on Jewish subjects was recognized by later evaluations. As Jack Lang, French minister of culture, eulogized, “Miss Signoret was an unshakeable militant, in the front rank of all the battles for human rights, under all regimes and on all horizons. It was faith that sustained her, faith in her ideals of liberty and progress.” Or as the novelist Marguerite Duras proclaimed, “She was a queen. She freed France from all her limitations and made her an international presence.” Upon the actress’s death, the leftist paper Libération put it most succinctly, covering the entire front page with one word: Simone. Yet for all the general praise for Signoret’s cinematic, political, and humanitarian endeavors, the connection to Jewish values is relatively unacknowledged, until one looks closely at the character of these final works.
Signoret was born Simone Kaminker on March 21, 1921, to a Jewish father (André Kaminker, a linguist,) and a French Catholic mother (Georgette Signoret) in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland of Germany where her father was stationed with the French army after World War I. Simone spent her childhood in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine mainly with her mother and two brothers. Her father was the Paris-born son of a Polish Jewish father and an Austrian Jewish mother who, according to Signoret, never forgave him for marrying out of the faith. Signoret writes about her father as “the archetype of the assimilated Jew” and points out that her first recognition of what was happening to Jews in Europe came from her mother’s (not her Jewish father’s) concern about the Jewish refugee children fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. By the time the Germans occupied France, Signoret’s father had fled to England and she herself had joined the group of politically conscious intellectuals around the Café de Flore who were to remain her friends and professional colleagues throughout her life. It was in this atmosphere of political discourse and committed camaraderie that Simone Signoret’s film career began.
Early Film Career
In the 1940s the “thinking man’s sex symbol” started work as an extra in French films. (She took her mother’s name in the early 1940s to avoid Nazi scrutiny when she began working in films.) Her stunning beauty attracted the attention of director Yves Allégret, who became her husband (1948–1949) and the father of her only child, her daughter Catherine. It was in one of Allégret’s films, Dédée d’Anvers (1948), that Signoret produced her signature role of the “prostitute with a heart of gold,” lending a subtlety and depth to the performance that transformed the cliché into an enduring icon. Signoret provided ever more complex variants of this role as she matured, creating heroines noted for their strength and independence while retaining the dazzling sensuality associated with her screen personae.
Two years after Dédée, Signoret played a more vicious version of her character as the scheming shrew in Allégret’s Manèges (1950), but she had already divorced him and become involved with the great love of her life, Yves Montand, to whom she remained married until her death in 1985 (“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. That is what makes a marriage last—more than passion or even sex!” [Nostalgia]). Montand adopted her daughter Catherine immediately, and by the time Signoret wrote her autobiography in 1978, the family unit of Montand-Signoret, Catherine, and Catherine’s son Benjamin was the unassailable core of the actress’s life.
From 1950 to 1955 Signoret created the roles with which she is most identified in the early stage of her career, a moody, sensual, scintillating presence that made her first a national and then an international symbol: La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950), Thérèse Raquin (Marcel Carné, 1953), Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), and Casque d’Ôr (Jacques Becker, 1952). The latter film not only established Signoret as an actress of range and complexity, but also galvanized her career as a first-rate star; it remained her favorite rôle, along with Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958, for which she received an Oscar). Room at the Top marked the next phase of Signoret’s career and truly launched her on the international scene; she was honored as Best Actress by both British and American film academies and by the Cannes Film Festival for her role as Alice Aisgill, an aging, unhappily married woman who believes she has found true love. Signoret gave all of her scenes (not only the sexual ones) a depth and passion that gave the film itself, a modest production of the British cinema, the status of high art.
Signoret and Montand were known for their engagement with causes of social justice and human liberation. They campaigned publicly against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the Vietnam and Algerian Wars; at the same time they refused to obey the party line and personally told Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of their opinion about Hungary in 1956. Throughout the 1950s the U.S. State Department made it difficult for Montand to tour the country; later it welcomed the French activists/performers, who became involved in a variety of causes on the left.
Signoret and Montand’s deep opposition to the execution of the Rosenbergs led them to make a filmed version of Arthur Miller’s anti-Blacklist The Crucible (The Witches of Salem, Raymond Rouleau, 1957). This resulted in the famous stay in California where Montand had an affair with Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe. Signoret was never threatened by this, as the longevity of their marriage confirms. Claiming that she was not surprised that Marilyn was in love with Montand (“If Marilyn is in love with my husband it proves she has good taste, for I am in love with him too.”), Signoret staked her own professional terrain with the same logic: “Hordes of young girls never copied my hairdos or the way I talk or the way I dress. I have, therefore, never had to go through the stress of perpetuating an image that’s often the equivalent of one particular song that forever freezes a precise moment of one’s youth.”
Mature Film Career
In fact, as she matured, Signoret created new and memorable roles that defied the more traditional pitfalls of the aging female star: Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965), The Sleeping Car Murders (Costa-Gavras, 1965), Is Paris Burning? (René Clément, 1966), and Games (Curtis Harrington, 1967). But most significant are the roles she created in L’Armée des Ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) and Madame Rosa (Moise Mizrahi, 1977), iconic Jewish women whose intelligence, compassion, endurance, and resilience inspired a whole new way of thinking about Jewish women’s power. In Army of Shadows she turns a very small part into a bravura performance as Mathilde, the Résistante who is eventually betrayed by her comrades. Signoret modeled her heroine on at least three real Résistantes—Lucie Aubrac, Dominique Desanti, and Ravesnsbrück survivor Maud Begon. In the film, Mathilde, the sole woman in the group, has a strength, intelligence, and conviction equal to that of the group’s leader, Philippe Gerbier. She singlehandedly devises a plan to rescue Gerbier from a Gestapo “shooting gallery” and it is Signoret’s portrayal, through Melville’s intense close-ups, that conveys a mood of deepest tension and greatest tragedy. Signoret spoke of how she channeled the film’s ambivalence through her last close-up: “[There’s] this look exchanged between Mathilde and her pals; she realizes they are going to kill her. [It is a] mingling of surprise, terror and complete understanding” (Nostalgia 378).
For her portrayal of Madame Rosa in the film of the same name (based on the Romain Gary/Emile Ajar novel), Signoret lent what had become her signature understanding of human character to the creation of the age-worn but compassionate madam who takes care of prostitutes’ children. In the film she is a survivor of Auschwitz, facing the end of her life and still haunted by the memory of the roundup that changed her forever. While the novel is more about the disintegration of a person and an unlikely love, the film gives us a compelling yet haunting representation of a woman whose indomitable strength is in both her traumatic memories and her compassion. The film’s Jewish meaning rests entirely on Signoret’s powers of evocation. She is a repository of unspeakable trauma, conveying through her body and her gestures the tragedy and the will of someone who longs for death but yearns for life. The makeup artist Maud Begon, a former prisoner of Ravensbrück, bore a number on her arm. Signoret insisted on wearing this tattoo, even though it was never visible in the film. According to Signoret herself, that number indicated deportation in 1942, and thus became a phantom of the millions of Jews deported from France and exterminated by the Nazis. This consciousness allowed Signoret to give important depth and Jewish memory to the “prostitute with a heart of gold” for which she was so well-known.
Apart from this significant acting career, Signoret’s Jewish consciousness was manifested in her writing and her activism, especially apparent in the work she did in conjunction with Mosco Boucault’s documentary film, Terrorists in Retirement. This extraordinary film, about a group of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who, during World War II, formed an activist wing of the Communist Resistance in Paris and elsewhere, was almost not shown. Both Signoret and Montand supported the film’s production (Signoret provided the narration) and agitated tirelessly for its release. The documentary’s suggestion that the French Communist Party had purposely not protected its Jewish resisters was controversial, and it was banned for two years, perhaps because it suggested that the French establishment had preferred Resistance fighters with more “French”-sounding names. When the ban was lifted (the year of Signoret’s death), it introduced a whole new dimension to studies of French historical memory. Signoret’s part in this cannot be underestimated. Her autobiography, written some ten years before this film, describes the atmosphere of wartime France, her emerging political consciousness, and her enduring commitment to issues of social justice. But only after the experience of Terrorists in Retirement was Signoret able to write her novel, Adieu Volodia, which heralded her new literary career, sadly cut short by her death in Paris of cancer on September 30, 1985. The French daily paper Le Figaro called it “An enormous, massive, monumental novel. Signoret emerges as a novelist of exceptional breadth and generosity, with a human warmth most current novelists completely lack.” The underpinning of Jewish experience is significantly absent from this evaluation.
In 1968 at Cannes, Chris Marker’s homage to Signoret was screened to an audience who appropriately celebrated Signoret’s years of screen excellence and political commitment. But the inner story of her specifically Jewish identification is highlighted in her two enduring cinematic portraits and in the interstices of her writing, the profound sadness mixed with celebration, as she looks at the lives of two families of Jews from the (Yiddish) Small-town Jewish community in Eastern Europe.shtetls of Eastern Europe, through the heady days of the Popular Front (which saw the election of a Jewish Socialist as Premier), to the devastation of the deportations and Nazi persecution, and finally to the affirmation of Jewish cultural history and family in the present time. Or perhaps one can see the unintended legacy in the screen work of her daughter Catherine, who played the role of Jewish survivor Simone Lagrange in the 1986 TV movie Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story, which outlines the heroic struggle of the women of Izieu as they challenged the establishment and brought Klaus Barbie to justice, and in Rose Bosch’s La Rafle (2010), where she played the heroic concierge who warns the residents about the raid by French police during the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942.
On the 100th anniversary of Simone Signoret’s birth, The Guardian ran a selection of close-up photos tracing the evolution of characters played by this inventive actress, each one a different portrait of the extraordinary women she had created on screen.
Selected Works by Simone Signoret
Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Adieu Volodia. Paris: Fayard, 1985; London: Pavanne, 1985.
Les Visiteurs du Soir, 1942.
La Boîte aux Rêves, 1943.
Dédée D’Anvers, 1948.
La Ronde, 1950.
Casque d’Or, 1952.
Thérèse Raquin, 1953.
Les Sorcières de Salem, 1957.
Room at the Top, 1958.
Dragués au Poivre, 1963.
Ship of Fools, 1965.
The Sleeping Car Murders, 1965.
Is Paris Burning? 1966.
The Seagull, 1968.
L’Armée des Ombres, 1969.
Rude Journée Pour la Reine, 1973.
Madame Rosa, 1977.
Judith Therpauve, 1978.
Chère Inconnue, 1981.
L’Etoile du Nord, 1982.
Terrorists in Retirement (Narrator), 1985/2001.
Hommage à Simone Signoret, 1986.
Cinéma d’Ombre, 1977.
Fond de l’Air est Rouge/Grin Without a Cat (Narrator), 1977/2002.
Henri Langlois, 1970.
Cinéma de Notre Temps, 1967.
The Love Goddesses, 1965.
Le Joli Mai, 1963.
TV Guest Appearances