The Secret to Simone Signoret’s Staying Power

The Secret to Simone Signoret’s Staying Power

From early on in her adult life, Simone Signoret learned how to be other without denying her identity—and the integrity this showed was reflected throughout her acting career. She was born Simone Kaminker and was half Jewish (through her father). At the time of the German Occupation, in her hopes of pursuing a career in movies, she changed her last name to Signoret (her mother’s maiden name) but did not renege on her Jewish heritage, refusing to be baptized Protestant. Under Occupation Law, her Jewish identity automatically excluded her from obtaining a work permit, and put her at risk of being denounced, thereby facing immediate arrest, imprisonment without trial, and eventual deportation to a concentration camp. But Signoret’s main purpose in adopting a non-Jewish name was less to hide than to be able to obtain walk-on parts in films without being asked to show a work permit.

The other major influence on Signoret during this dangerous period of her life was her introduction, in 1941, to the anarchist Groupe Octobre, made up of artists, actors, intellectuals, refugees, writers, poets, and communists who gathered daily at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. This became her family and an environment in which she developed her political acumen. But, given the subversive (and by 1943 illegal) nature of this group, Signoret was taking considerable risks. She further put herself in jeopardy by living at 7 rue du Dragon, which was an address for dropping off and receiving messages for the French Resistance. Signoret would relive some of this life of complete uncertainty in several Resistance films that she made: Against the Wind (1948), The Day and the Hour (1963), and Army of Shadows (1969).

Immediately after the Occupation, in 1945, Signoret’s career took off and from then on she developed her many-faceted persona as an actor, a mother, a politically engaged artist, a lover (she was married for decades to Yves Montand), and a writer. She mostly appeared in popular mainstream cinema, even though she is now more readily associated with art cinema—perhaps because her first major breakthrough film was Jacques Becker’s internationally acclaimed Casque d’or (1952), for which she won the BAFTA for best actress. Of her forty-five films, however, less than a quarter of them were with auteurs, even if the list of such directors with whom she worked is long and illustrious.

“Her performances are marked by their minimalism and restraint, relying on small gestures, her incendiary eyes, a look, a purposeful walk, and few words.”

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