Acting monument takes final bow

Michel Bouquet’s career embraced Mitterrand and Renoir

by Richard Mowe

Michel Bouquet - pictured in The Origin Of Violence - divided his acting career between theatre and cinema
Michel Bouquet - pictured in The Origin Of Violence - divided his acting career between theatre and cinema Photo: UniFrance
An actor who has been described as a monument of stage and screen in France has died at the age of 96.

Michel Bouquet, a confirmed Parisian, was born on 6 November and in time honoured tradition signed on at the Conservatoire of the Dramatic Arts in 1943.

He gained early experience in the theatre but came to cinematic prominence in the Sixties when he was taken up by such directors as François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol. He made a speciality of characters who were both ambiguous and mysterious.

In the theatre he played in Ionesco’s Le roi se meurt no less than 800 times. He went to boarding school with his three brothers and was always regarded as a bit of an outsider. His contemporaries made fun of him, which made him distant and reserved. His father was taken prisoner of war, leaving the youthful Bouquet to provide support for his mother.

Michel Bouquet, who was remembered by president Emmanuel Macron
Michel Bouquet, who was remembered by president Emmanuel Macron Photo: UniFrance
Bouquet took up a series of odd jobs including as a mechanic and working in a bank. The theatre, however, proved a magnet for his talents and he took acting lessons with Maurice Escande, of the Comédie-Française followed by the Conservatoire where the legendary Gérard Philippe was one of his friends. He worked with Jean Vilar’s Théâtre national populaire and gave many performances at the Avignon Theatre Festival. His first major role came thanks to Jean Anouilh in Roméo and Jeannette.

He was first noticed in cinema with Monsieur Vincent by Maurice Cloche in 1947. Notable roles included with Truffaut in The Bride Wore Black, with José Giovanni in 1973 in Two Men In Town; as Javert in Robert Hossein’s Les Misérables in 1982; How I Killed My Father by Anne Fontaine in 2001; and The Last Mitterrand by Robert Guédiguian in which he played Président François Mitterrand. Among many awards he won the European Film Award for Best Actor in Toto The Hero. He also won two César Awards for How I Killed My Father and The Last Mitterrand (2005).

Gilles Bourdos hired him to play the artist in Renoir in 2012 and he created an impression on TV alongside Bruno Crémier in the series Maigret. In 2018, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour for his contributions to the arts. His final film role was in 2020 in Bernard Stora’s drama Villa Caprice.

His reputation in France was such that the office of the French president Emmanuel Macron issued a statement about this death: “For seven decades, Michel Bouquet brought theatre and cinema to the highest degree of incandescence and truth, showing man in all his contradictions, with an intensity that burned the boards and burst the screen. A sacred monster has left us.”

Michel Bouquet as Renoir
Michel Bouquet as Renoir Photo: UniFrance

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