(Ronald Bergan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/18; Photo: The Guardian; via Adam Sullivan)

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 GodardClaude ChabrolMarco 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).

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Khaled Nabawy writes: “What a sad day, Michel Piccoli dies, for the industry and the audience he is a great actor; for me, he is my greatest father ever on screen in The Immigrant!  Through you I learned early how a great human being can be. . . . RIP MY greatest father on screen.”  

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