For more than half a century, there seemed to be one constant in French cinema – the actor Michel Piccoli. With his death at the age of 94 something vital has disappeared from the screen.
Never young looking – he was prematurely bald – Piccoli grew in maturity and power over the years, with directors such as Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Marco Ferreri and Claude Sautet seeking his services more than once. He also worked for directors of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras and Louis Malle.
Even when he was a big name, Piccoli was never too proud to play small supporting roles or even bit parts if he liked the screenplay. But whatever the size of the role, whether playing a goody or a baddie, Piccoli would bring to the character a gravitas (with a tinge of humour) and an ironic detachment, simultaneously revealing a real, recognisable human being beneath the surface.
Piccoli was born in Paris to a French mother and an Italian father, both of them musicians – his mother was a pianist; his father a violinist. At 19, he made his screen debut in a walk-on part in Sortilèges (1945), directed by Christian-Jaque.
After several roles in the cinema and theatre, he met Buñuel. “I wrote to this famous director asking him to come and see me in a play. Me, an obscure actor! It was the cheek of a young man. He came and we became friends.” Piccoli appeared in six of Buñuel’s films, usually cast as a silky, authoritarian figure.
His first performance for Buñuel was as a weak, compromised priest trekking through the Brazilian jungle in La Mort en Ce Jardin (Death in the Garden/Evil Eden, 1956). In Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), he was the idle and lecherous Monsieur Monteil, sexually obsessed with Jeanne Moreau as the maid Célestine.
Just as louche was his smooth bourgeois gentleman who persuades a respectable doctor’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) to spend her afternoons working in a high-class brothel with kinky clients in Belle de Jour (1967). Piccoli reprised the role charmingly almost 40 years later in Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours (2006).
He was discreetly charming as the Marquis de Sade in Buñuel’s La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way, 1969), subtly overbearing as the home secretary in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and sinister as a prefect of police in Buñuel’s penultimate film, Le Fantôme de la Liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974).
In the 1950s, apart from his one film with Buñuel and his appearance as María Félix’s jealous lover in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, Piccoli was cast mainly in run-of-the mill “policiers”. During this period, Piccoli was part of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés set in Paris, which included the writers Boris Vian, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and the café singer Juliette Gréco, to whom he was married from 1966 to 1977. He was also an active member of the French Communist party.
The 60s was his most creatively exciting and varied decade. His first leading role (with Serge Reggiani and Jean-Paul Belmondo) was as an unscrupulous gangster in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (The Finger Man, 1962).
This led to one of his best remembered parts, as Brigitte Bardot’s husband in Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), in which he plays a screenwriter, willing to sell his wife to a producer (Jack Palance) in order to get his script filmed by Fritz Lang. In a homage to Dean Martin’s character in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, Piccoli wears a cowboy hat in the bath.
As memorable as this image was the name of the character he played in Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967). As Simon Dame, he is continually being greeted as Monsieur Dame (a joke that works only in French), and is rebuffed by Danielle Darrieux, who cannot bear the thought of being called Madame Dame.
It was in 1968 that Piccoli met Ferreri, who starred him in Dillinger È Morto (Dillinger Is Dead), a bleak study of alienation, in which a man’s life is laid bare. Piccoli is brilliant as an industrial designer who, while spending an evening at home, making himself a meal, watching TV and seducing the maid, decides to kill his wife and go to Tahiti.
It was the first of seven films the actor made for the Italian-born director, the most infamous being La Grande Bouffe (Blow Out, 1973), an excessive film about excess, where Piccoli as a TV personality, along with a pilot, a judge and a chef, all bored with life, literally eat themselves to death.
Piccoli’s few roles in English language films were less than challenging: they included his secret agent in Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969) and the suave card dealer in Malle’s Atlantic City (1981).
He was much happier in France, where his talents were not only respected but revered. His several films for Sautet showed him as a complex and flawed hero, starting with Les Choses de la Vie (The Things of Life, 1970), in which he played a man who, although having an affair, finds himself still attached to his estranged wife, his son and friends, and consequently unable to make the absolute commitment his lover requires.
In 1973, Piccoli formed a production company which kicked off with that year’s Themroc, directed by Claude Faraldo, in which he played a factory worker, living in a squalid flat with his mother and sister, pursuing an existence of repetitive routine and urban grind, before he rebels. What made this biting social satire particularly unusual was that language was abandoned completely, with the characters having to communicate in a series of formless noises, something Piccoli does particularly effectively.
Piccoli then returned to his speciality – the urbane bourgeois – in Chabrol’s blackly comic Les Noces Rouges (Blood Wedding, 1973), where he played a mayor’s deputy having an affair with his boss’s wife. In Godard’s Passion (1982), he was a factory owner whose wife is having an affair with a film director.
He gave three of his largest and most impressive performances in his late 60s and 70s. In Malle’s Milou en Mai (Milou in May, 1990), he is the ideal repository of all the director’s sympathies, the upholder of the best of traditional country values, unambitious, unacquisitive and a lover of nature, in contrast to his greedy middle-class family gathered for a funeral.
Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991) cast him magisterially as a famous artist trying to capture a new nude young model on canvas. In Oliveira’s Je Rentre à la Maison (I’m Going Home, 2001), Piccoli struck a personal and poignant note as an actor trying to deal with old age, and refusing to compromise his principles.
He shone in what amounted to almost a cameo as the courtly but bumbling elderly relative of the Duchess of Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) in Rivette’s Ne Touchez Pas la Hache (Don’t Touch the Axe, 2007), a version of Balzac’s novel on erotic obsession.
For the English language The Dust of Time (2008), Theo Angelopoulos’s last film, Piccoli joined such stalwarts of European art cinema as Bruno Ganz and Irène Jacob in a love triangle that covers the latter part of the 20th century. Despite some of the stilted dialogue, Piccoli bares the soul of a character whose sufferings include his internment and escape from a gulag.
He dominated every moment as a reserved and modest cardinal who panics when elected pontiff in Nanni Moretti’s semi-satire Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope, 2011). The first close-ups of him, when he realises he has been appointed the new pope, suggest, with subtle expressions, emotions ranging from surprise, humility, ambivalence, excitement and then horror.
In Vous N’avez Encore Rien Vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, 2012), Alain Resnais’ intriguing, self-reflective examination of actors and acting, film and theatre, Piccoli, playing himself, is the doyen in a cast of leading French actors of the day.
He directed the features Alors Voilà (1997) and La Plage Noire (The Black Beach, 2001), the former winning the Critics’ prize at Venice, to add to the many prizes he had won as an actor. It was appropriate that when Agnès Varda filmed One Hundred and One Nights for the centenary of the cinema in 1995, she cast Piccoli as Monsieur Cinema.
He was married three times. His first two marriages, to Eléonore Hirt and to Gréco, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, the screenwriter Ludivine Clerc, whom he married in 1978, and by his daughter, Anne-Cordélia, from his first marriage.
• Michel Piccoli, actor, born 27 December 1925; died 12 May 2020