July 2020

Arts & Letters

The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

By Shane Danielsen

Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in ‘Contempt’. © Marceau-Cocinor / Les Films Concordia / Georges de Beauregard / Carlo Ponti / Collection Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

Re-watching the films of the most successful screen actor of the 20th century

There’s a case to be made that Michel Piccoli – who died on May 12, at the age of 94 – was not only the face of postwar European cinema, but also the most successful screen actor of the 20th century. Consider the evidence: Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963). Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967). La grande bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973). Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980). La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991). Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). To boast four or five such works in one’s filmography is to have had an enviable career. Piccoli had these and 20 more. Often starring but sometimes not – and occasionally not even billed, a kind of unexpected bonus for the attentive viewer. Befitting his background in the theatre, where he worked for avant-garde directors like Peter Brook, he eschewed obvious crowd-pleasers, was drawn instead to the challenging, tangential and subversive. (“I don’t like motorways,” he told The Guardian in 2002. “I prefer side roads.”) Yet stardom found him nevertheless. Former Cannes film festival director Gilles Jacob declared him “as indispensable to France as water, sun and wind”.

Along with Robert Ryan, he was my favourite actor, his presence on the screen – urbane, coolly intelligent – a constant in my filmgoing life. More striking than handsome, perhaps, but appealing nonetheless, and distinctly, unapologetically masculine. The chest matted with dark hair. Those black, bushy eyebrows. He was never young – at least, not on camera. More to the point, he never seemed young. Always middle-aged, balding, usually in a suit and tie, looking either faintly anxious or wryly amused. An adult. His mind, the totality of his actions and attention, directed to temporal concerns.

At the beginning of April, filled with an odd presentiment that he would soon die, I began re-watching as many of his films as I could find. I mostly avoided the obvious classics and focused instead on works I hadn’t seen in a long time, or at all. Naturally, the results varied: any filmography of 233 titles inevitably has its highs and lows. The one constant was the actor himself, dependably superb in even the most workmanlike vehicle.

Jean Aurel’s De l’amour (1964) is a now-forgotten French New Wave comedy, inspired by Stendhal and co-starring Anna Karina, whose antic tone is badly undercut by its antediluvian sexual politics. Piccoli’s character earns the rapt sexual fascination of one woman (co-star Elsa Martinelli) as he’s beating another – a sequence that, frankly, is tough to watch. (One of the things I most enjoy about Piccoli onscreen is his undisguised fascination with women, which is more typically refined, egalitarian, not boorish or crude.) Rather better is Sept morts sur ordonnance in 1975, a ­meticulous sort-of thriller set in the world of provincial medicine, its novelty made gripping by its star’s calm, almost sorrowful authority. For the same director, Jacques Rouffio, he shot The Passerby in 1982, a French–German co-production in which Piccoli plays the chairman of a humanitarian organisation who unexpectedly murders a Central American diplomat – a former Nazi official, we learn – to avenge the extermination of his foster parents.

Ten Days’ Wonder is a long way from Claude Chabrol’s best film (that’s 1960’s Les bonnes femmes, in case you’re wondering), but there’s something undeniably fascinating about watching Piccoli share scenes with Anthony Perkins – so nervy here, he looks like he might actually vibrate out of this plane of existence. And a friend in Vienna, upon hearing of my descent into this particular rabbit hole, recommended an obscure Costa-Gavras feature, 1967’s Shock Troops – a World War Two drama about a group of French resistance fighters trying to uncover a spy in their own ranks. A tense, terrific movie, and one of Piccoli’s finest performances à la ensemble.

Best of all, though, was a Bertrand Tavernier film I’d never seen: 1977’s Spoiled Children, in which Piccoli plays a barely disguised version of the filmmaker, ruthlessly plundering a bitter tenancy dispute in his apartment block to find a story for the film he can’t quite bring himself to make.

Born in 1925, Piccoli was able not only to work with some important directors of the “classic” cinéma français – Jean Renoir, Jean Delannoy, René Clair – but also, years later, with virtually every major filmmaker of the French New Wave. (Notable exceptions: Rohmer and Truffaut.) And though quintessentially Parisian, raised in the 13th arrondissement by musician parents, he also forged a number of valuable partnerships in Italy, notably with Marco Bellocchio (for whom he made two remarkable, now-little-seen features: 1980’s A Leap in the Dark, and The Eyes, The Mouth in 1982) and the aforementioned Ferreri, with whom he collaborated on five films, including the “authentically perverted” La grande bouffe; it was described on its release, by the critic Roger Ebert, as being “to gastronomy as The Exorcist is to Song of Bernadette”. Late in life, he looked still further afield, working with Chilean émigré Raúl Ruiz and Portuguese veteran Manoel de Oliveira. Piccoli’s performance in the latter’s I’m Going Home (2001), as a Shakespearean actor unmoored by the sudden death of his wife and daughter, ranks among his finest.

What mattered most, he said, was the passion of the director; a project’s commerciality, its budget or status, were of relatively little concern. That said, Piccoli was not entirely without ambition. As a young man, at the very beginning of his career, he took it upon himself to write to Luis Buñuel, asking him to come see him perform in a play – a display of youthful audacity that paid off handsomely. The Spanish auteur subsequently cast him in 1956’s Death in the Garden – as Father Lizardi, the first of an occasional line in clerics that would conclude, 55 years later, with his performance as a depressed and anxious pontiff in Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope – and then enlisted him for five further films, including Belle de Jour alongside Catherine Deneuve, the sly, kinky Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) with Jeanne Moreau, and The Milky Way (1969) in which he played, with admirable restraint, the Marquis de Sade.

But for me, Piccoli’s most important collaboration was with the great Claude Sautet, which began with 1970’s Les choses de la vie, continued with Max et les ferrailleurs a year later (both alongside the mesmerising Romy Schneider, the pair forming an onscreen couple as sublime as Myrna Loy and William Powell), and culminated in 1974’s Vincent, François, Paul et les autres, starring opposite Yves Montand and a young Gérard Depardieu. These are some of the most remarkable films of that decade, and Piccoli is extraordinary in each of them, effortlessly communicating the sense of an entire life packed with passions, distractions, pleasures and regrets.

Moreover, in Sautet – the most worldly of film-makers – he found a sensibility as mature and generous as his own. He was deeply attracted to the “insanity” of Ferreri (Piccoli: “He was dangerous; he wasn’t fit for general consumption”), but good as those films are, this feels very much like the working out of certain private or unexpressed desires. Piccoli was at heart a bourgeois, and excelled in dramatising the yearnings and anxieties of the educated French middle classes. He always seemed absolutely contemporary; he looked like he was born in a grey suit, smoking. So much so, in fact, that to see him in a costume drama – as de Sade or Don Juan – offered an odd little jolt of dissociation, akin to finding a wristwatch on a figure in a Caravaggio.

As a viewer, I tend to prefer long, uninterrupted takes, in part because I like to see how a moment develops over time, and how a shift in composition, achieved either through blocking or camera movement, can realign the energy within a scene. But also because I like seeing actors working in real time, in a shared space, the integrity of their performances unmediated by editing. And while Contempt is probably Piccoli’s greatest film – one of the greatest films ever made, in fact – for this reason I’m most wowed by his performance in Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead (1969).

In it, he plays yet another of his disquieted businessmen, an industrial designer of gas masks. Over the course of 94 minutes, we see him return home, prepare a meal in his kitchen, watch television, seduce his housekeeper, and slowly ponder whether to murder his sleeping wife (Anita Pallenberg) with the pistol he finds wrapped in a newspaper in a cupboard. Almost wordless, purely observational, it anticipates the unbroken domestic mundanity of Chantal Akerman’s classic Jeanne Dielman by six whole years. And Piccoli fully understood the film’s significance in his own career: “It taught me what it meant to act without being an actor.”

His other legacy performance, I think, is in Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse. Adapted from Balzac, it’s about an ageing painter who, inspired by the visit of a beautiful young woman (Emmanuelle Béart), attempts to complete a major work abandoned a decade earlier. Arguably the greatest movie ever made about an artist, it’s indisputably the finest ever study of the artistic process: a minute-by-minute chronicle of the decisions, hesitations and reconsiderations that constitute the making of a painting. At 65, Piccoli is not yet in the white winter of his age; there’s still something carnal and potent about him, and his scenes with Béart – posing her roughly, occasionally rebuking her – crackle with sexual energy. More than anything, though, he communicates the ferocious, almost feral genius of his character: watching him at work, you never for one moment doubt that Édouard Frenhofer is an actual artist – and a great one.

I never met Piccoli formally, never got to interview him. Once, though, in Cannes, I sat in the audience at the Salon Miramar as he introduced a feature he’d directed, The Black Beach, a muddled but sincere attempt to address the legacy of revolutionary action, inspired by his own admirably leftist politics. (A one-time member of the Communist Party, part of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés circle in the 1950s alongside Sartre and de Beauvoir, he was a supporter of Poland’s Solidarity movement, and a determined and lifelong enemy of France’s National Front.) Piccoli spoke briefly and eloquently, with obvious emotion. The affection for him in the room was palpable.

And then, a couple of years later, in Venice, in a lift in the Hotel des Bains, the doors opened and there he was, looking elderly but distinguished in a linen jacket and pale silk scarf. There were already two other people with me in the lift; I took a step backward to make room for him, and he entered, nodding his thanks.

For a moment he stood in front of me, his back turned to me, gazing up at the floor indicator. I said nothing, of course; there was nothing to say but “thank you”, and that would have sounded not only intrusive but banal. So I just looked at him – grateful for his presence, his example, the simple fact of his existence. Exactly as I’ve done for most of my life.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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