Michel Piccoli: French film star who worked with Bunuel and Godard

Harrison Smith
Piccoli in Nice, 1983: AFP/Getty

Michel Piccoli was a versatile and omnipresent face of French film who worked with directors including Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Godard, bringing a touch of melancholy, menace and libertine glee to movies that became touchstones of international cinema.

With his tall forehead, bushy eyebrows and expressive features, Piccoli was often cast as a Gallic everyman, playing tormented youngsters, wisecracking friends, amiable fiancés and lecherous pleasure seekers. Cast as a priest in his first Bunuel film, Death in the Garden (1956), he played a panicked, newly elected pope in his last major movie, Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (2011) – and by then had become “a giant of European cinema,” wrote New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis.

Piccoli, who died aged 94 of a stroke at his home in the northern town of Saint-Philbert-sur-Risle, had credits in nearly 200 movies and dozens of plays and television series, appearing in American productions such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), as the leader of a Soviet spy ring, and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), as a casino manager.

But he made his greatest mark in France, where he worked with directors such as Jean Renoir and Jacques Demy, in the musicals French Cancan (1955) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and with Jean-Pierre Melville, in the gangster flick Le Doulos (1962).

“Admirers of Michel Piccoli know better than to ignore any film, however slight, that is anchored and calmed by his presence,” New Yorker film reviewer Anthony Lane wrote in 2009.

When Agnès Varda made One Hundred and One Nights (1995), a dizzying celebration of cinema’s first hundred years, she cast Piccoli in the central role as an elderly man with a fading memory who pays a young woman to tell him stories about the movies. One scene had him arguing with Italian star Marcello Mastroianni over the best onscreen baths, including Piccoli’s time in the tub during Contempt (1963), his breakthrough film.

Directed by Godard, the boundary-breaking pioneer of the French New Wave, Contempt starred Jack Palance as a producer who hires Piccoli, a trilby-toting screenwriter, to work on a movie adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. An early scene showed Piccoli in bed with his wife – played by Brigitte Bardot, near the height of her celebrity – whom Piccoli reassures by complimenting each part of her body. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” he declares.

“Piccoli, in the performance that made him a star, registers with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual-turned-hack who feels himself outmanned,” film critic Phillip Lopate wrote in 1997, in a New York Times essay that described Contempt’s influence on directors including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

Piccoli said that he was effectively playing Godard himself and recalled that the director “wanted me to wear his tie, his hat, his shoes”. He later appeared in Godard’s Passion (1982) and maintained a long working relationship with Bunuel, appearing in six of the Spanish-born director’s movies and dubbing a character’s voice in Bunuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Making a splash: Piccoli with Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ (Getty)

Piccoli was the philandering estate owner in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), opposite Jeanne Moreau; a sardonic suitor who leads Catherine Deneuve’s bored housewife to visit a brothel in Belle de Jour (1967), one of Bunuel’s biggest hits; and a government minister at a perpetually interrupted dinner party in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

“When we were shooting Belle de Jour, ” Piccoli told Film Comment in 1983, “I posed for some publicity photos for Lui [a French men’s magazine], “and Bunuel saw them and said, ‘You call this an actor? It’s a puppet! The great actor Piccoli doing a thing like that! What a horror!’ He folded the magazine under his arm and kept it throughout the shoot, making frequent references to it. I loved him.”

Piccoli was nominated four times for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, and received the best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, as a judge in Marco Bellocchio’s A Leap in the Dark. A year later, he received the same award at the Berlin International Film Festival, for his role as a manipulative department-store manager in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s Strange Affair.

“You did not direct Piccoli. You filmed him,” former Cannes head Gilles Jacob said shortly after the actor’s death in May. Piccoli, he added, was “as indispensable to France as water, sun and wind”.

Jacques Daniel Michel Piccoli was born in Paris on 27 December 1925. Although he was raised in a musical family – his father was a violinist with Italian roots, his mother a French pianist – he was more interested in theatre, acting in a production of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Emperor’s New Clothes at the age of 9.

Piccoli stayed with friends in southwestern France during the Second World War and became active in left-wing politics, later befriending philosophers and political activists Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. By the close of the war he had made his film debut as a dancing villager in Sortilèges (1945).

He also began appearing in theatre productions in Paris, sometimes performing in six plays a year while working with leading directors such as Patrice Chéreau and Peter Brook. A popular TV movie adaptation of Molière’s play Don Juan, released in 1965 with Piccoli in the seductive title role, helped secure his status as a French screen star.

But for all his acclaim, he was never entirely part of the commercial mainstream. He played a disaffected policeman who falls for Romy Schneider’s prostitute character in Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971), and memorably starred as one of four friends who spend the weekend gorging themselves to death in Le Grande Bouffe (1973), a vomit-filled satire from Italian director Marco Ferreri.

“I’ve always gravitated towards subversives,” Piccoli told The Guardian in 1997. “Maybe ‘subversive’ isn’t a strong enough word, but everything that it implies of being marginal, being a provocateur.” Describing his acting choices, he later told the newspaper: “I don’t like motorways. I prefer side roads.”

His other movies included Costa-Gavras’s first feature film, The Sleeping Car Murders (1965); Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986) and Holy Motors (2012); Claude Chabrol’s Red Wedding (1973); Malle’s May Fools (1990); and Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home (2001), playing an actor losing his memory.

Piccoli also starred in Jacques Rivette’s four-hour drama La Belle Noiseuse (1991), as a painter returning to a long-abandoned work. “There’s simply nobody better at portraying life experience in a gesture, a walk, standing still,” wrote Boston Globe movie critic Jay Carr.

Piccoli’s first two marriages, to actress Eléonore Hirt and actress-singer Juliette Gréco, ended in divorce. He had a daughter from his first marriage, Anne-Cordélia; and in 1978 married Ludivine Clerc, with whom he adopted two children, Inord and Missia.

At 71, he wrote and directed his first of three feature films, Alors Voilà (1997), a comedy that won a critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival. He continued acting into his 80s and speculated that young filmmakers continued casting him in part because of his connection to film history, and his decades spent working with great directors while trying to retain his creative independence.

“In every profession there is a danger of being a marionette,” he told The Guardian. “After the director and the writer,” he added, “the actor can perform his own mise-en-scene, insert his own interpretation. There is a kind of complicated alchemy, a game of seduction, in which one accepts the imagination of the director without allowing him to kill the imagination of us actors.”

Michel Piccoli, actor, born 27 December 1925, died 12 May 2020

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