Jean-Pierre Bacri obituary

<span>Photograph: AF archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

Any admirer of French cinema over the past 40 years will have developed a soft spot for the hangdog looks and gruff, rumpled charm of the actor Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died aged 69 of cancer. In the tradition of Walter Matthau, he brought sympathetic comic shading to even the most irredeemable worrywart or miseryguts. His speciality was a saturnine impatience with life that was nonetheless susceptible to glimmers of optimism; he could mope and hope with equal conviction. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, praised his “laconic and sensitive humanity”, calling him “the tenderest of our grouches”.

Those qualities were present also in Bacri’s award-winning screenplays, written mostly with his longtime partner Agnès Jaoui; their collaboration outlived the end of their relationship in 2012. They co-wrote and starred in a series of urbane and insightful comedies of manners, which Jaoui also directed, and which earned her comparisons to Woody Allen. In Under the Rainbow (2013), it was Bacri who took the Allen-esque role of a disconsolate driving instructor convinced his number is up after a fortune teller predicts the date of his death. “You’re shut tight like a vault,” his girlfriend tells him, prefiguring a pleasure common to many of Bacri’s performances: that slight eventual unclenching as his characters start to entertain the remote possibility of joy.

The couple’s biggest success was The Taste of Others (Le Goût des Autres) (2000), Jaoui’s directing debut, in which Bacri played a philistine factory owner besotted by the lead actor (Anne Alvaro) in a production of Jean Racine’s Bérénice. It was an international hit, and a surprise Oscar contender for best foreign language film.

Agnes Jaoui, Alain Chabat and Jean-Pierre Bacri in The Taste of Others (2000).
Agnes Jaoui, Alain Chabat and Jean-Pierre Bacri in The Taste of Others (2000). Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

They won the best screenplay prize at Cannes for Look at Me (2004), starring Bacri as an arrogant publisher who behaves cruelly toward his overweight daughter. In their follow-up, Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008), he was a struggling film-maker. Their final project together, Place Publique (2018), cast him as a washed-up TV presenter.

“I would have made more egocentric movies without him,” Jaoui said in 2008. “He is self-taught, and when he knows something, he knows it forever.” She called him “my favourite actor and writer” and “the man that understands me the best and the quickest”. The affection was reciprocated. “It’s a vacation when I work on a film with Agnès,” Bacri said. “We talk, smoke joints … We like each other.”

The critic David Denby said the couple had “mastered the art of complex narrative. They have a story to tell, but they go so far into manners, quirks, and undertones that we feel, at the end of their films, that we have understood not just a dramatised anecdote but an entire way of life.” Denby called Bacri “a master of the many shades of half-interest and sullen boredom. His expression asks, ‘What’s the point?’”

He was born in Castiglione (now Bou Ismaïl) in Algeria, the son of a postman and a housewife, and raised in Cannes; he traced his love of film to his father’s weekend job at one of the town’s cinemas. He was educated at the Lycée Carnot in Cannes, then moved to Paris in 1976 to become an advertising copywriter. He studied drama from 1977 at Le Cours Simon and won a prize two years later for his play The Sweet Face of Love.

French film and television work followed, with early parts including a pimp in Le Grand Pardon (1982), a would-be actor in postwar Lyon in Diane Kurys’ Entre Nous (1983), and a cop in Luc Besson’s stylish thriller Subway (1985), for which Bacri earned his first César nomination. He met Jaoui in 1986 when they appeared in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They began writing together soon after.

Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri in 1998
Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri in Paris after receiving the César award for On Connaît la Chanson (1997).
Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

The couple’s first script, Cuisines et Dépendances (1993), was adapted from their own Molière award-winning play about a fraught reunion between a group of friends. For the innovative director Alain Resnais, they adapted Intimate Exchanges, Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinarily complex set of plays, into the two-part film Smoking/No Smoking (1993), in which a variety of possible outcomes (16 on stage, 12 in the screen version) result from one woman choosing whether or not to light a cigarette. This was a script arrived at “more by pruning than elaboration”, as the critic Adam Mars-Jones put it, though it won Bacri and Jaoui the César award for best screenplay.

They took that prize a further three times: for Un Air de Famille (1996), co-written with its director, Cédric Klapisch; On Connaît la Chanson (1997), also known as Same Old Song, their second picture with Resnais, which was dedicated to Dennis Potter and employed that writer’s technique of having actors lip sync to well-known musical numbers (Bacri also won a César for his performance in that film); and for The Taste of Others.

His finest work outside those collaborations with Jaoui included Looking for Hortense (2012), directed by the former Cahiers du Cinéma critic Pascal Bonitzer. Bacri was poignant as a downtrodden professor called upon to save a young immigrant from deportation just as his own wife, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is deserting him. The film features a discussion of different categories of sorrowful smile – the “I owe you money but I’m broke” smile, the “I’m hurting but it’s no big deal” smile – which plays like a roll call of the actor’s own repertoire of facial expressions.

He could find the truth in any scenario, from the unusual demands of the fantasy comedy Didier (1997), in which he played a failing soccer manager dog-sitting a labrador that turns into a man, to C’est la Vie! (2017), a French box-office hit in which he was a wedding caterer reduced to a spluttering incredulous wreck by a string of professional disasters.

By 30, Bacri had already arrived prematurely on screen at a kind of defeated middle age, where he remained for the rest of his life. Audiences would not have wanted him any other way.

• Jean-Pierre Bacri, actor and screenwriter, born 24 May 1951; died 18 January 2021