Death of Michel Piccoli, the excessiveness of an actor

Article published in La Croix on February 13, 2009

Paris. Bastille’s Place. Appointment is given in a cafe. Accustomed to the place, Michel Piccoli arrives. Slightly late, he apologizes, affable. Around, the hubbub of discussions at the neighboring tables. The atmosphere evokes his films with Sautet – Mado, The Things of Life, Vincent, François, Paul and the Others… The boy takes the order.

Barely installed, Michel Piccoli already seems elsewhere. As if he was still in his role. Every evening, he performs at the theater Minetti (1), by the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, directed by André Engel: an old actor is summoned by a theater director to play the role of King Lear in which he once triumphed.

“Being decorated means death like butterflies”

He will wait all night, in a hotel lobby, to no avail. Gradually enclosing himself in a soliloquy, he will evoke his hopes, his career, will fulminate against the mediocrity of the world and the “art catastrophe”. A character cut to its excess. 83-year-old Michel Piccoli is an old actor. As with Minetti, he triumphed in Lear with such success that the show was resumed two seasons in a row…

The rapprochement irritates him. He is afraid of being statuettes. “There is nothing worse, except to make yourself. This idea alone is unbearable to me. It is for this reason that I resisted André Engel a lot when he offered to play King Lear in 1993. I didn’t say yes “… only in 2006! We are surprised. How can an actor hesitate before such a proposal?

“You have to be silly or proud, he admits. But, when you reach a certain age, you are pinned on Lear as a decoration. I never liked being decorated. Even less pinned. It’s very beautiful, but it means death like butterflies. “

“I am not a commercial actor”

He prefers to stay ” living “, Running constantly after new adventures” extravagant, thunderous, out of convention “. Remembering the scandal caused by Feast, by Marco Ferreri, in 1973, he smiled. ” It was a very beautiful film. We have to see it now. “The real question, he continues, is that of desire. Mine is to defend an art that questions the why and the how of existence. I am not a commercial actor. I don’t get any glory from it, but I’m proud of it. I’ve always been like that since I started. “

It was in the 1940s, the day after the Liberation. The piece was titled The Judgment of God. His first engagement. His most beautiful memory. “ We played at the Pigalle Theater, a magnificent place, all in woodwork, built by the Rothschilds. Men went up to heaven to judge God. Just that ! I played two roles: a young unemployed man and an old man. “

He is offered to be paid either as a percentage with his name on the poster above the coin title, or as a fixed salary, but with his name below. He chooses the first proposition. ” I was already pooch, he has fun. And I didn’t earn a penny. Money didn’t matter to me. This whole period has been extraordinary. There was an atmosphere of invention, euphoria, tremendous madness. People were coming out of four years of horror and war. They had suffered. Some had been imprisoned, tortured, deported. Everyone rediscovered freedom and the joy of living with a sincerity that has never been found, except in 1968. “

“A little talkative boy”

Suddenly he explodes: “ Today, everything has become a business: art, existence, sexuality, the quest for happiness … However, that is essential! Seeking to flourish simply by remaining honest with yourself, without ever having been badly sold or having been badly bought, isn’t that bad? “ Launched, Michel Piccoli never stops. No need to try to interrupt it. Eyes closed, he can’t hear. It’s hard to imagine that as a child, he says, he was “ a little talkative boy who listened a lot but didn’t speak much “. André Engel says that this is still the case …

What is certain is that his discovery of the theater went through that of speaking. He was 9 years old. In boarding school near Compiègne, he was to take part in a theatrical performance at the end of the year. He had inherited a “beautiful role”: one of the tailors of Emperor’s New Clothes, Andersen’s tale. “ Suddenly, I felt like a fish in the water. I told stories in front of people who listened to me while remaining silent. “

His vocation was born. As a teenager, he devours the magazine every week Comedia. Then, at 18, announces to his parents that he will be an actor! “ They did not shout loudly “, he admits. It is true that they themselves were artists – the violinist father, the pianist mother, both in the Colonne Concerts orchestra. That doesn’t mean they were bohemian.

To live in Place d’Italie, in the 13th arrondissement (” a still really popular working-class district with lots of Arabs! “), the Piccoli were of good bourgeoisie. “ My grandparents owned a paint factory on rue du Château-des-Rentiers. You can not make that up ! ” The family is very Catholic and very active, except for his mother who, after having lost a brother during the Great War, then a young child, no longer wanted ” hear about this religion. It caused a curious mix, for a child. “

“I have the feeling of having been of a terrible innocence”

War joins him in this universe which is ultimately very “ protected ”. “During the breakup, my mother panicked. She said to me: “Take your bike and join our friends in Corrèze.” I drove for 300 km. I slipped through the leaking lines, with the German planes above my head. I was unconscious. Paradoxically, I felt free. It’s terrible when you think about it! ” After he no longer knows how many hours, he finally comes to the end of his journey. Many refugees are already present.

Michel Piccoli sees a crying man. He is in his forties. For a 15-year-old boy, he looks old. “ Someone quietly explained to me, “He is a Jew.” This struck me. But I wasn’t totally surprised. I knew what anti-Semitism was. My parents practiced it, albeit with a certain elegance. They would never have sent a Jew to the gas chamber. I was also aware of politics. I had read Stefan Zweig. I heard Hitler on the radio. There was no need to speak German to understand. “

As with many, these years of war will be for Michel Piccoli those, decisive, of the learning of the revolt and the indignation. More than half a century later, he is still fed on it, even if he admits that he no longer knows which saint to devote himself to. “ Never before has the planet experienced such a moral, financial, political catastrophe. War has never been more present. However, we fought. No doubt wrong. I have the feeling of having been of a terrible innocence, to have let myself be fooled by monsters manipulating of ideas. “

Theater actor, film actor, filmmaker

He’s racing. He apologizes. “We should act. But how ? I can only fight in my head. Or rather struggle with it, like everyone else. And again, I am privileged. I have been very lucky in my life. I have met exceptional people. ” He quotes in bulk, at the theater: Jacques Audiberti, Jean Vilar, Jean-Marie Serreau (“ I stayed three years at the Babylon Theater where Ionesco and Beckett were created! ”), But also Peter Brook, Luc Bondy, Patrice Chéreau and, of course, André Engel. Rivette, Oliveira, Ferreri, Chabrol, Godard, Sautet … who brought him into the history of cinema. “I was able to get adopted by creators who were concerned about their art. They allowed me to delve into the world of invention and entertainment. “

” And then, he adds, I now work in three trades. That’s wonderful ! I am first of all “theater actor” and “cinema actor”. These are two different activities, even if they complement each other. In the theater, the actor, once the show has been presented to the public, is the king, master of his acting and staging. He can impose his personality. In cinema, the actor remains a puppet manipulated by the director, however prestigious. But during filming, the place that interests him most is behind the camera. He follows the work of cameramen, machinists, sound engineers. “I have always been passionate about technique. “

To the point of finding his third “job” there: in 1997, he in turn became a filmmaker, with his first feature film: So there you go. No sooner has he said the title than he stops. “ We must separate. I had completely forgotten about it. “ He adds : “You know, spending your time upsetting – or having fun upsetting – others is a great life. You do not believe ? “