Marielle - the passing of a French legend

'Voice' of a generation of acting talents dies at 87

by Richard Mowe

Jean-Pierre Marielle played in more than 100 films
Jean-Pierre Marielle played in more than 100 films Photo: Unifrance

The death of veteran French cinema and theatre actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, at the age of 87, leaves another gap in the group who became known as “the band of the Conservatoire” whose ranks included his late life-long friend Jean Rochefort, as well as Claude Rich and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

He played in more than 100 films, both comic and tragic, with such directors as Michel Audiard, Bértrand Blier, Claude Sautet, Bértrand Tavernier, Claude Miller and Alain Corneau for whom memorably he created the role of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (opposite Gérard Depardieu) as the musician Marin Marais in All The Mornings Of The World (Tous Les Matins Du Monde) in 1991.

With his warmly distinctive deep vocal timbre, imposing stature and pepper and salt beard and moustache, Marielle – who was born in Paris on 12 April, 1932 and died yesterday (24 April) in hospital after a long illness –started his career in his natural habitat, the theatre before progressing to film.

The son of industrialist in the agri-business and a dress-maker, Marielle grew up in Dijon before one of his teachers pointed in him in the direction of the Conservatoire de Paris. His first stage role was in Molière’s Le Marriage forcé. Besides traditional theatre he also tried cabaret with Guy Bedos but ignored the cinema until later. He played on stage in boulevard comedies as well as the works of such Anglo-Saxon playwrights as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee as well as the classics of the likes of Chekhov and Pirandello.

Flamboyant and theatrical trio now no more: (from left) Jean-Pierre Marielle, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort as they appeared in Les Grands Ducs by Patrice Leconte.
Flamboyant and theatrical trio now no more: (from left) Jean-Pierre Marielle, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort as they appeared in Les Grands Ducs by Patrice Leconte. Photo: Unifrance

He approached cinema cautiously in the Sixties, taking on more than 20 character parts before he became noticed in such films as Claude Berri’s Sex-shop; Georges Lautner’s Le Valise; and Michel Audiard’s How to Make Good When One Is a Jerk and a Crybaby (Comment Réussir Quand On Est Con Et Pleurnichard). Now on the big screen he immersed himself in as many as five films a year, notably Let Joy Reign Supreme (Que la fête Commence), The Common Man (Dupont Lajoie), The Accuser (L'Imprécateur), Coup de torchon, Ménage (Tenue de soirée), Uranus, 1, 2, 3 Freeze (Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil), Little Lili (La Petite Lili) and Grey Souls (Les Ames Grises).

He was modest in the extreme and deflated actorly artifice. He was once quoted as saying: “I never take things seriously, I don’t having anything much to say and, furthermore, if I did I wouldn’t know how to say it.” Away from the theatre and cinema he loved cycling, jazz and visiting New York.

He received seven Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), notably for his work in All The Mornings Of The World.

He kept his private life discreet but he was married to the actress Agathe Natanson, who announced his passing yesterday, indicating his funeral would be a family affair. He had a son from a previous marriage.

Belmondo expressed his sadness at the news and paid him tribute. He said: “Jean-Pierre was more than a friend. I was his shadow and he was mine. France has lost a great actor and strong personality who worked with both humour and seriousness of purpose.”

Meanwhile, from a different generation, Guillaume Canet said that a whole part of cinema had left with his passing, pointing out that his cohorts in Patrice Leconte’s Les Grands Ducs Jean Rochefort and Philippe Noiret also were no more.

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