Piccoli - a monument of French cinema

Last exit at 94 for actor who started as an extra

by Richard Mowe

Michel Piccoli in one of his most memorable roles in Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope which he made at the age of 85
Michel Piccoli in one of his most memorable roles in Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope which he made at the age of 85 Photo: Unifrance
One of French cinema’s monumental acting talents Michel Piccoli, famed for his roles in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (Le Mépris), The Things Of Life (Les Choses De La Vie), by Claude Sautet, and more recently Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (Hamemus papam), has died at the age of 94.

Piccoli had acted in movies by practically every major French filmmaker, starting with Jean Renoir, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Demy, Costa-Gavras, Jacques Rivette and of course Godard, who cast him in Le Mépris (1963), adapted from Alberto Moravia's melancholy novel, opposite Brigitte Bardot.

He played in more than 60 theatre productions and 100 movies, yet Piccoli's beginnings were not auspicious. He started out in movies as an extra, to make money, and by the time he was discovered, he was already middle aged, or looked it. For years, his screen career consisted of playing extras, and his facial features boasted a perpetual six o'clock shadow. His first breakthrough was in Jean-Pierre Melville's noir Doulos: The Finger Man (Le Doulos), in 1962.

Michel Piccoli 3
Michel Piccoli 3 Photo: Unifrance
Piccoli, who was married for a while to Juliette Gréco, appeared alongside some of the most stunning co-stars, starting with Martine Carol. In the 1960s, he was often cast as an disconsolate Don Juan caught between commitments. Playing opposite Romy Schneider in films such as The Things Of Life, his character, who dies behind the wheel of his car, is a man trapped by illusions of love and freedom.

In his memoir, Egotistical Dialogues (Dialogues égoïstes), Piccoli looked back on early passions, and his debut in the post-war avant-garde theatre, working with Roger BIla, Jean Vilar, Jean-Louis Barrault and Peter Brook, with whom he continued to collaborate in his later years.

On the set of Renoir's French Cancan (1955), he met the actor Jean Gabin, his first encounter with a so-called monstre sacré. In the 1960s, he would try almost anything, including a series of popular historic dramas among them Amazons of Rome (Le Virgini Di Roma), shot in Belgrade, with Yugoslav soldiers in blonde wigs playing Amazons. His beginning with Luis Buñuel was in Death In The Garden (La Mort En Ce Jardin), shot in Mexico. Buñuel wanted a portly priest, around 45; Piccoli did the job, and he would go on to collaborate with him in Belle Du Jour among others. He also played a historic Don Juan, directed by Marcel Bluwal, for television in 1965.

Michel Piccoli 2
Michel Piccoli 2 Photo: Unifrance
In 1968, he had one of his busiest years, including work with Alfred Hitchcock on Topaz, which took him to Hollywood. He was always to support what he considered just causes and he participated in the 1991 film Against Oblivion (Contre L'Oubli) for the 30th anniversary of Amnesty International.

Piccoli who was a heavy smoker, both off and on screen, until he gave up at the age of 80, also turned to directing including Not Exactly The Life I Dreamed Of (C'est Pas Tout à Fait La Vie Dont j'Avais Rêvé), a burlesque adventure written with his wife, Ludivine Clerc, and shown out of competition at Cannes.

He remained faithful to his old friend Manoel de Oliveira, with whom he worked on several occasions, including memorably in 2001’s I'm Going Home (Je Rentre à La Maison), in which Piccoli played a great actor who is losing his memory, opposite John Malkovich.

Read more reviews of films featuring Piccoli, here.

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