Jean-Louis Trintignant: an actor of charisma, depth and dark emotions

Jean-Louis Trintignant had a long and distinguished career on stage and screen, but his cinema presence was never stronger or fiercer than in old age. In later characterisations he projected with renewed force a natural keen intelligence, an uningratiating manner and air of being politely, or not so politely, disgusted with the moral vacuities and hypocrisy of everything around him, together with his own tragic and passionate sense of loss.

All of these themes were present in the role which was arguably his greatest: Georges, the elderly retired music teacher in Michael Haneke’s Amour, whose wife Anne (unforgettably played by Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a stroke, and having promised he would never put her in a home, Georges looks after her as best he can in their Paris apartment while her condition deteriorates. Georges’s anguish and his desperately perceived new love for his wife in this terrible new twilight comes across most shockingly in his astonishment and panic at the first sinister symptom – which perhaps owes more to Haneke’s dark imagination than strict clinical accuracy – when Anne appears mysteriously to “freeze” in the kitchen one morning and then come back to life after he has briefly and frantically run out of the room on a pointless mission to get a towel. She has no memory of this uncanny blackout, and Georges yells at poor Anne. Is this her idea of a joke (“une plaisantérie”)? But of course Trintignant shows us that Georges is well aware from the outset that it is not.

Trintignant brilliantly conveys Georges’s all-encompassing fear and anger at the world and at himself: his anger that Anne should be put in a situation that he can do nothing about and which he will finally have to take terrible steps to end. Trintignant’s final speech, when he starts musing about his own boyhood, is an attempt to distract Anne, and himself, from the horrible thing he must now do. I can never remember this brilliant movie without also recalling the great interview that Trintignant and Riva gave jointly to the Guardian’s Xan Brooks when the film was released. Trintignant concluded it by sharply dismissing the idea that to love life is to love cinema: “If you love life, you’re not going to go and sit in the dark in some cinema, are you? Why would you want to do that? Go and live your life instead!” A hilarious, studied sacrilege in the face of cinephilia.

Trintignant’s spiky, scratchy presence, watchably coexisting with his athletic handsomeness as a young man, first emerged in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman in 1956, in which it was his destiny, like the rest of the cast, to be upstaged by the emerging superstar Brigitte Bardot who was being ruthlessly marketed as a sex kitten. Trintignant plays the grumpy, uncool young man who marries Bardot’s free-spirited young character, only for her to have sex with other people. But perhaps because Trintingant was not trying to compete with Bardot in terms of sexiness or coolness, he still managed to make an impression. He had a sexier role in Claude Lelouch’s huge 1966 hit A Man and a Woman, where he plays a daredevil racing-car driver – two of his uncles were racers, and Trintignant was always passionate about the sport – whose wife has taken her own life. He meets a beautiful widow (Anouk Aimée) because their children are at the same boarding school, and the movie episodically shows us scenes from their new relationship. Trintignant revived this character in the movie’s two sequels, progressively showing the characters in their later lives, showing great and – for me – slightly mystifying loyalty to a film that has not aged particularly well.

Jean-Louis Trintignant with Marie Christine Barrault in Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud.
Jean-Louis Trintignant with Marie Christine Barrault in Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud. Photograph: Photos 12/Alamy

More interesting, and closer to the difficult and intractable persona that Trintignant was beginning to cultivate on screen, was his appearance in Eric Rohmer’s My Night With Maud (1969). In the film, his intense and sobersided character, having fallen in love from afar with a beautiful young woman with whom he has not so much as exchanged a single word, finds himself constrained to resist the sexual attentions of a hugely desirable divorcee called Maud (Françoise Fabian). On seeing that he is determined not to go to bed with her, she tolerantly calls him an idiot – and it is a very Trintignant moment: he is difficult, thwarted, angry, principled, in the midst of a situation he cannot really control.

In 1970, Trintignant found one of his greatest roles in which he was superbly cast, as Clerici in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, in which he plays a wealthy young man whose homosexuality has been suppressed, along with the childhood memory of attempted sexual molestation. Desperate to fit in, to conform, he joins the Mussolini fascists, and to prove his loyalty to them, sets out to assassinate a prominent anti-fascist academic who was his doctoral supervisor at university. Trintignant is very good at showing the darker, unhappy, unsexy side of sex: how sex can be debasing and humiliating, especially when you have no way of rationalising and controlling its effect on you, and how this pressure has a dysfunctional consequence, which in this case is fascism.

Some of these ideas returned in Trintignant’s great late-life role: the judge Joseph Kern in Kieslowski’s Three Colours Red in 1994, a gloweringly charismatic and alienated character that prefigured his Georges for Haneke. He is a figure that broods almost like a hallucination in the life of its heroine, played by Juliette Binoche, and who has a secret: compulsive eavesdropping on his neighbours’ sexual lives, while musing on whether our actions truly can ever make a difference to other people’s real natures. It is an intriguing part for Trintignant, and he brings to it a sort of ancient mariner quality, together with something more disturbing. Yet it is probably not as strong as his Georges, because of its streak of bizarreness.

Trintignant brought intellectual strength and sinew to French cinema, and a dark surge of passion.