Michel Piccoli: a fierce, strong performer who became the object of cinephile fan-worship

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Peter Bradshaw  –  The Guardian

From Godard’s Le Mépris to Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, Piccoli’s prolific career saw him evolve into a legend of European cinema

Piccoli, who has died aged 94, in We Have a Pope (2011). Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

In his 70-year career, working for directors like Godard, Bunuel, Varda, Clouzot, Hitchcock, Moretti, Chabrol and Sautet, Michel Piccoli had become something like a sacred or profane monster in French cinema: a character actor or complicated leading player who put strength into a picture like a flexed muscle. His robust, rugged looks were not quite like Gabin’s, and certainly a world away from the smouldering sexiness of Belmondo or the ethereal beauty of Delon. He could play a lost soul, a man with secrets, a predator, a sensualist, a politician, an artist, a leader of men. In both his youth and age he was intensely masculine in an unadorned and ungroomed way, the male version of jolie-laide, perhaps. Piccoli was beau-laid or beau-moche, and destructively sexy with it.

Perhaps nowadays only Vincent Cassel comes close to Piccoli’s ability to project and dramatise a fierce detachment and self-reliance – and Piccoli’s was the ideal face for conveying contempt, the concept at the heart of Le Mépris, the 1963 film by Jean-Luc Godard. Without that role, he might have been condemned to play forever the kind of supporting roles — interesting, but not the sort to make one’s name — of the sort that Jean-Pierre Melville had given him in Le Doulos, or The Stoolpigeon, in 1962, the creepy club-owner that Belmondo’s tough-guy tries to frame for a cop killing.

In Le Mépris, he is Paul, a talented young dramatist who gets the chance for big money with a commission to write the screenplay for a new movie version of Homer’s Odyssey (a drama crucially about adventure and infidelity), to be directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself) and produced by a brash American mogul played by Jack Palance. Paul is contemptuous of the whole crassly commercial business and his wife Camille (famously played by Brigitte Bardot) is contemptuous of him for appearing to use her charms to ingratiate himself with the producer. Piccoli’s long, complex, opaque dialogue scenes with Bardot epitomise Godard’s own fraught and angry relationship both with women and with cinema’s seductive sexiness, as well as the hidden transactions and abasements that come with film-making. Piccoli’s own face portrayed this with great sophistication: it was the face of disillusion, of not-so-secret misogyny, and yet a far-from-satisfied appetite for success.

For Hitchcock in Topaz (1969) he played a Soviet spymaster — a role which was a gift for Piccoli’s mastery of unattractive people in charge, though it wasn’t the most interesting work from either Piccoli or Hitchcock. In Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Piccoli is the disagreeable cynic and married flirt Husson, a friend of the man married to Catherine Deneuve, and it is from this slippery and insinuating Husson and his indiscreetly chattering wife that Deneuve learns of the existence of maisons which men visit for risk-free sex, and in a way it is Husson who indirectly inspires her need to become a secret high-class daytime escort. Piccoli’s coolly unconcerned figure is the embodiment of every pimp, every customer, every blandly corrupt police chief that presides over the whole business. Piccoli was to return as questionable and preposterous authority figures in Buñuel movies like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974).

Another surreal extravaganza was the notorious La Grande Bouffe (1973) in which Piccoli features as a jaded television producer who, with three other equally disillusioned and self-important men, gather in a restaurant with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Piccoli’s air of ennui and suppressed distaste, made him obvious casting for this scabrous satire, but in my view it doesn’t have the interest and poetry of Buñuel.

For Claude Sautet, he made five very well-regarded movies, of which arguably the best was Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres (1974), a somewhat American-style indie picture with something of Mazursky or Cassavetes: a four-way male-midlife drama which holds up better than La Grande Bouffe, with Piccoli playing opposite those equally lionised European movie-alphas Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Serge Reggiani. They are four friends who are undergoing menopausal crises in parallel, with Piccoli as the disenchanted doctor alienated from both his marriage and his vocation. The sadness and loneliness of these kinds of role were beginning to be the keynote for Piccoli now.

Perhaps Piccoli was an actor who was destined to grow into his looks, and he had a very characteristically cast as the ageing artist Frenhofer in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), adapted from Balzac, with Piccoli as the artist whose creative fires are rekindled by the beautiful (and often naked) model and muse, played by Emmanuel Béart: a very male fantasy.

For Agnes Varda, in her One Hundred And One Nights (1995) he is cinema itself –Simon Cinema – who hires a young woman (Julie Gayet) to regale him with stories to rekindle his knowledge and memory of film. It is a very flamboyant, exuberant, theatricalised performance and this marked the moment when Piccoli became someone to be liked and even loved. Perhaps more than any other actor of his generation, he continued to work with extraordinary dedication in any number of European movies and co-productions and became an icon in the process, sometimes almost islanded in his own mythic reputation.

Perhaps the weirdest and most piquant example of this was his enigmatic appearance in Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home in 2001, as an ageing actor devastated when his wife, daughter and son-in-law are killed and he is personally and professionally adrift, bizarrely miscast as Buck Mulligan in a new version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Piccoli carries off the strange wrongness of these scenes with placid, almost saintly dignity, and for all its pure eccentricity I think this is my favourite Piccoli performance. He is starting to show the heartwrenching and even tragic figure of someone who is poised on the edge of departing the screen, and this is certainly the case with his very lovable and charming performance as the reluctant pontiff in Moretti’s flawed satire We Have a Pope (2011).

Michel Piccoli was the fiercest, strongest flavour in European movies and he was the actor whose career showed a gradual lightening: he played villains, then complicated and defeated men of the world, on the edge of despair and misanthropy, but with a kind of stubborn idealism – and then in old age he was the object of cinephile fan-worship: a legend of cinema.

 

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