Michel Piccoli: The great seducer is dead

Wou have we often seen him shave (almost always wet), tie his tie or light a cigarette? He let us take part in the spectacle of how his forehead grew higher over the years and the remaining hair became increasingly gray.

Only the bushy, dark eyebrows, with which he set ironic accents, defied the color of age for a long time. He has exposed himself manifoldly on the canvas, even in the literal sense of an impressive, unreal fleshiness.

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Above all, however, he allowed the directors to reveal disturbing, even monstrous facets of him. He did it with the fearlessness of the interpreter, who is willing to generously engage in a variety of moral conflicts, but who may be secretly speculating that the roles of an filmmaker’s alter ego are more likely to be suspected.

An emotional value

Michel Piccoli’s screen appearances have been a reliable emotional value in European cinema for over seven decades. He was indispensable to him – neither from his past nor from his future.

ITALY - APRIL 01: In Rome in April 1963, during the shooting of the film LE MEPRIS, the French actors Michel PICCOLI and Brigitte BARDOT, who played, respectively, a succesful scriptwriter and his wife, ran in front of Jean-Luc GODARD's camera . (Photo by Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in 1963 in “The Contempt”

Source: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

With Godard’s “The Contempt”, his unconditional willingness to trust the respective gaze of a filmmaker was felt for the first time in 1963. Since then he has effortlessly navigated between the different, contradicting universes of Claude Sautet, Marco Ferreri, Michel Deville, Claude Lelouch, Leos Carax and Manoel de Oliveira.

He remained loyal to Luis Buñuel in six films; Even in the melancholic exuberance of Jacques Demy’s films, his somberly reserved characters were surprisingly in good hands. He also occasionally switched behind the camera, with skill and groping ambition.

Erosion of feelings

The actor, born in Paris in 1925 as the son of an Italian-born musician couple, made his film debut immediately after the Second World War. He only started his canvas career seriously in the mid-fifties. The jeune premier he never had to give even with a full head of hair.

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Nevertheless, the most frequent screen partner of Romy Schneider and Catherine Deneuve has always been a great seducer, although rarely a confident one. Drawing his attention to himself was a flattering privilege, but one with barbs.

Claude Sautet discovered a trait of “elegant misogyny” in Piccoli’s canvas persona, which he has been persistently and relentlessly exploring since “The Things of Life” (1969) and which culminated devastatingly in “Mado” (1976). Piccoli usually only parried the accusation of mendacity, of cowardly, contemptuous procrastination in his films with silence and lethargy.

Behind this resigned agreement with the erosion of feelings, he still resonated with their lost depth and sincerity.

Greatest tenderness

When Romy Schneider asked him about her last bitter argument in “The Things of Life” if he could reply anything to her, he answered laconically “No”. But Piccoli puts the greatest tenderness in this “no”.

Michel Piccoli with his arm around Catherine Deneuve in scene from the film 'Heartbeat', 1968. (Photo by Lopert / Getty Images)

Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve 1968 in “Palpitations”

Source: Getty Images

In spite of the familiarity and intimacy of the depictions, always keeping an aura of the foreign, an unfathomable remnant, was the pound with which he overgrown the canvas, in love as in war. This opacity could have fixed him on genre cinema early on. Jean-Pierre Melville was the first to use it in 1962 in “The Devil in the White Vest”.

He blended excellently into the figure ensembles of the spy films by Yves Boisset and Alfred Hitchcock, played with sarcastic serenity, for example, the political and erotic opponent of the pale hero Frederick Stafford in “Topas” (1969).

A seized

But he was particularly interested in this genre work as variants of the role subject that he has mastered as perfectly as no other: the bourgeois. With incomparable connoisseurs, he embodied his passions and life lies, befitting his status, while maintaining his respect, respecting decorations, arrangements and rituals.

An enchanting solitaire in this gallery of masquerades and intrigue is his part in Claude Chabrol’s “Bloody Wedding” (1973): the fierceness of passion, which as an adulterous local politician makes him forget all social calculus, gains a purity and innocence that were unprecedented in the Œuvre of the director.

Despite all reservations, Piccoli could be a seized man, and with all his sovereignty was not an immaculate key witness. His characters know about their own corruption, the betrayal of former ideals and failure as a husband, lover or father.

Desire for outburst and anarchy

In return, the desire for outburst and anarchy persisted in his roles since sixty-eight, in “Themroc” (Claude Faraldo, 1972), “The Great Eating” and other scandal films to which he lent his talent in the early 1970s.

Grande Bouffe, La (1973) Michel Piccoli Michel (Michel Piccoli) is already preparing the next meal. Directed by Marco Ferreri, [ Rechtehinweis: picture alliance/United Archives ]

Michel Piccoli 1973 in “The Great Eating”

Credit: picture alliance / United Archives

In 1989 it echoed as a cheerful echo in Louis Malle’s “Comedy in May”, where he achieved the childishly wise title character of Chekhov’s subtlety: a nice reflex also of his stage work, a variation of the figure of Gajew, which he had written a few years earlier in Peter Brooks “ Kirschgarten ”production.

Over the years, his sophistication and authority for patriarch figures (with Nanni Moretti he even made it to the Pope, albeit a depressed one) predisposed him, whose sarcasm the younger ones have to fear and which persistently challenge them.

The king, the fool

As an enigmatic manager, Piccoli perfected the role type of Machiavellian mentor in “A strange career” (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1981), who seems to know the slogan alone to create a realm of unexpected success and decadent pleasures.

Michel Piccoli 2011 at the premiere of “Habemus Papam”

Source: Getty Images

He was constantly captivated by the subtle distortions of characters and human relationships, a fascinated analyst of unspoken motives. For example, in “I’m going home” (de Oliveira, 2001) there is no trace of gentleness of age or sentimentality, but rather the participatory research into happiness and unhappiness.

Piccoli had known for a long time that, in addition to kings, aging should also play court jesters. Already on May 12, according to news agency AFP from a family friend, he died of a stroke. Michel Piccoli was 94 years old.


Michel Piccoli, a dark fawn

A rock. An impressive physical presence. An indestructible build. A balding forehead that reinforces the impression of a wild animal. A cigarette glued to the lips, the smoke of which squinted his eyes, adding mystery to this lightning glance where the flashes of tenderness looked like blades, where a shadow always passed. “His eyes of burning tar, black velvet, sometimes absolute black”, said Juliette Gréco, who was his wife.

Homeric anger too which made the screens tremble. That of the opulent, but cuckold surgeon, around the leg of the Sunday which gathers his friends in Vincent, François, Paul and the othersexploding with rage when ” failures “ around the table send him back to his intimate contradictions. The rift of the cardinal, barely elected pope, crushed under the load which flees in the streets of Rome. Her sensual hands that caress the body of Brigitte Bardot who demands more. His pantagruelic laughter and his scatological excesses in Feast, by Marco Ferreri, sanctioned by the hoots and spitting of the Cannes public and the harsh popular reception which enchanted him, delighted that the provocation hit its target so much.

Michel Piccoli, a dark fawn

In memories older than popular memory carries, also emerges the high figure, so brittle, of the libertine who has an appointment with death, in the Dom juan by Marcel Bluwal, on the small black and white screen in front of which one evening in 1965 12 million viewers gathered. The last years in the theater, in King Lear, monarch lost in the folds of a dark conscience, that he lived with all his power and his own fragility, subject to memory lapses.

A discreet man with a reputation for seduction

From all this long, prolix and so rich career (150 films), theater, television, a long beach dominates. That of the great actor who sticks to the spirit of the 1970s through his appearances in the films of Claude Sautet, bathed in the melancholy melodies of Philippe Sarde. Michel Piccoli, by introducing a tormented form of gravity into it, embodies the cracks of success, as idealized then by this time of all possibilities. In Things of life, a hurried driver, distracted by his close break with his mistress, who will die from a car accident, Eros and Thanatos mingled in the hellish wheel of an endless and tragic barrel.

A massive body, impressive monolith

Michel Piccoli was born two days after Christmas 1925 in a family of ” passionless musicians “, Pianist and violinist, that the trade with aesthetics had not preserved from a narrow-mindedness, if we are to believe their offspring which will flee their narrow values. From his childhood and adolescence, he will keep this execration of a bourgeoisie folded, with harshness, on its small interests. Hence, no doubt, his ease in interpreting its drought, the pretenses like bitter remorse, the appearance and the acrid examination of conscience inflicted by reversals of fortune.

Carried by the euphoria of Saint-Germain-des-Près – he was 20 years old at the Liberation -, he sought his way, started at the theater but it was cinema which seized this massive body, impressive monolith, and of the palette of expressions that emerges. The greatest filmmakers claim it: Renoir, Resnais, Demy, Melville, Buñuel (six films), Godard, Hitchcock, Varda, Tavernier. Like others, he goes back and forth with Italian cinema. And regularly goes back on stage, staged, again, by the best: Peter Brook, Patrice Chéreau, Luc Bondy.

→ READ. Michel Piccoli (in Habemus Papam in 2011): “I interpret a double pope, anxious and who has the happiness of believing in God”

This thunderous man on the screen, so discreet in life, who dragged a reputation for seduction, maintained by his roles alongside magnificent actresses (BB, Romy Schneider, Catherine Deneuve, Ottavia Piccolo), has not ceased to be a militant ” resolutely left “, Not reneging on any of its commitments.

The announcement of the death of a great actor, at the moment when it reaches us, always gives birth to a kaleidoscope of images, a carousel of moments and sensations, a farandole of scenes, music (La chanson d’Hélène …) Marking out the course of our lives. Michel Piccoli had gradually moved away, saddened to feel overcome by age. The suddenly disappeared imagining rekindles old fires in all of us. His presence is there. A rock emerging from the mists of a not so distant past.


Itinerary of a “sacred monster”

December 27, 1925. Birth in Paris.

Year 1945-1950. First figuration in the cinema, learns theater during Simon.

1960s. Revelations at the cinema: plays in The Doulos, by Jean-Pierre Melville (1962); Contempt (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard, alongside Brigitte Bardot, and Belle by day, by Luis Buñuel with Catherine Deneuve (1967); Things of life (1970) by Claude Sautet, with Romy Schneider.

1980. Cannes Interpretation Prize for Leap into the void by Marco Bellocchio.

nineteen eighty one. Play at the Bouffes du Nord theater in La Cerisaie by Chekhov, directed by Peter Brook.

2000s. In the theater again, play King Lear from Shakespeare and Minetti by Thomas Bernhard, two productions by André Engel.

In 2011. In Habemus Papam by Nanni Moretti, he embodies Cardinal Melvil, who, elected Pope, refuses this office.


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 ? “