Michel Piccoli’s “Sneaky Subversion”

The Daily — May 19, 2020
Michel Piccoli

Michel Piccoli’s body of work is one of the most essential in all of cinema. First, there’s the sheer number of performances he turned in during a run that lasted well over six decades. Depending on whether we’re counting this or that cameo, that number is somewhere around two hundred, give or take. “Even when he was a big name,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian, “Piccoli was never too proud to play small supporting roles or even bit parts if he liked the screenplay.” Then there’s the extraordinary range. As BFI programmer Geoff Andrew puts it, “he could play fiery, tender, sophisticated primitive, sinister, seductive, shy, outgoing, kindly, cruel, diffident, obsessive, apathetic, passionate, brilliant, bestial, miserable, cheery, establishment, anarchic . . . anything and everything.”

Most of all, though, it was Piccoli’s taste that gave shape to his remarkable oeuvre. He had a penchant for what critic Robert Koehler calls “sneaky subversion” that led him to work with such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Agnès Varda, Manoel de Oliveira, and the list just goes on and on. When news broke on Monday that Piccoli had passed away at the age of ninety-four, Darren Hughes, the cofounder of the Public Cinema in Knoxville, tweeted, “I’ve always said that if I could only take one filmography with me to the deserted island, I would choose Piccoli over any filmmaker.”

Piccoli grew up in a musical household—his French mother was a pianist and his Italian father was a violinist—and after the Second World War, he began working in the theater. His first film role was an uncredited walk-on in Christian-Jaque’s Sortilèges (1945), and he carried on scoring small roles—including a notable one as a captain in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955)—until his first minor breakthrough in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le doulos (1962). He plays a gangster, but “as portrayed by the great Michel Piccoli,” wrote Glenn Kenny in the essay accompanying our release in 2008, this “gambling kingpin” is “hardly designed to repel viewers,” but is instead “a rather reasonable man of affairs, albeit criminal ones.”

Two with Godard

The major breakthrough came with Godard’s Contempt (1963), in which Piccoli plays a screenwriter, whose wife, played with a luminous pout by Brigitte Bardot, suspects he’s using her to win the favor of a brash American producer (Jack Palance). “Piccoli’s long, complex, opaque dialogue scenes with Bardot epitomize Godard’s own fraught and angry relationship both with women and with cinema’s seductive sexiness, as well as the hidden transactions and abasements that come with filmmaking,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Piccoli’s own face portrayed this with great sophistication: it was the face of disillusion, of not-so-secret misogyny, and yet a far-from-satisfied appetite for success.”

Writing for the BFI, Craig Williams argues that the one other film Godard and Piccoli made together, Passion (1982), is “even more compelling.” Contempt, “made at the height of the nouvelle vague, is the closest Godard came to making an actors’ showcase,” writes Williams, while Passion, “made during the period when Godard’s narratives became fragments in service of an overarching thesis, saw the actors submerged by the director’s unyielding vision. In the midst of the labor disputes and tableaux vivants, Piccoli is a threatening presence; his performance is a rock in a sea of uncertainty.”

“I Loved Him”

Back in the 1950s, when he was dividing his time between his work in the theater and tiny roles in what Bergan calls “run-of-the mill policiers,” Piccoli sent a letter to a Spanish director he admired, introducing himself and inviting him to come and see him in a play. Luis Buñuel showed up, the director and actor became fast friends, and as Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times in 2002, “Buñuel cast him as a pudgy Mexican priest in the 1956 Death in the Garden, even though, Mr. Piccoli said, ‘I was not pudgy, not Mexican, and certainly not a priest.’”

Piccoli played a sexually frustrated patriarch in Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) before taking on the role of the sly aristocrat who slips the address of a Parisian bordello to Catherine Deneuve’s bored housewife in Belle de jour (1967), a film William Friedkin calls “truly subversive in its satiric depiction of middle-class society, the church, and our social mores.” Piccoli was “discreetly charming as the Marquis de Sade in Buñuel’s 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, The Phantom of Liberty (1974),” writes Bergan.

When Buñuel died in 1983, Film Comment reached out to a handful of the director’s favorite actors, including, of course, Piccoli. “When we were shooting Belle de jour, I posed for some publicity photos for Lui,” Piccoli recalled, “and Buñuel saw them and said, ‘You call this an actor? It’s a puppet! The great actor Piccoli doing a thing like that! What a horror!’ He folded the magazine under his arm and kept it throughout the shoot, making frequent references to it. I loved him.”

The Provocateur

Piccoli was arguably even more daring in his work with Italian provocateur Marco Ferreri. In their first film together, Dillinger Is Dead (1969), Piccoli plays Glauco, a gas mask designer who comes home, makes dinner, finds a gun, and uses it to shoot his wife in the head. When we released Dillinger in 2010, Michael Joshua Rowin wrote that “the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation.” For Rowin, “Piccoli’s reading of Glauco—something not quite cerebral, yet not quite animal—faithfully imparts the mystifying quality of the character’s hallucinatory actions.”

Ferreri and Piccoli made five more films together, including La grande bouffe (1973), in which Piccoli stars alongside Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, and Philippe Noiret as a group of friends who have decided to retire to a villa in the French countryside where they will intentionally eat themselves to death. What makes the film so disturbing, finds Chuck Bowen at Slant, is that “the men’s hungers are informed with a sense of authentic, guttural vitality that prevents the narrative from turning into a comfortable anti-avarice screed.”

Beyond the New Wave

Besides Godard, Piccoli worked with a good number of directors closely associated with the French New Wave, but often later in their respective careers, long after the Wave had subsided. Before Belle de jour, Piccoli first worked with Catherine Deneuve in Agnès Varda’s Les créatures (1966), in which the world of the sci-fi novel that Piccoli’s writer is working on seems to interfere with the reality of the island village where he and his mute wife are staying. In 1995, Varda cast Piccoli as the incarnation of cinema itself in One Hundred and One Nights, which, four years later, the New York TimesJanet Maslin called “a whirl of film's greatest hits, an overripe variety show that plays like the ultimate round of Trivial Pursuit. What makes her film as engaging as it is excessive is the obvious affection with which Ms. Varda has collected these memories . . . Piccoli plays the preposterous central role here with just enough brio to make it work.”

Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, directed Piccoli in two of his vibrant musicals, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and Une chambre en ville (1982). Piccoli took a somewhat minor role in Alain Resnais’s The War Is Over (1966) but then played himself in Resnais’s tribute to the theater and French acting royalty, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012). He worked with Jacques Rivette on three features, the most significant of which would have to be La belle noiseuse (1991). Piccoli’s portrayal of a renowned painter whose creative drive is revved up again when he meets a young admirer scored him one of a total of four nominations for the César, France’s rough equivalent of the Oscar.

Other French directors Piccoli collaborated with include Henri-Georges Clouzot (Woman in Chains, 1968), Claude Chabrol (Ten Days Wonder, 1971, and Red Wedding, 1973), Louis Malle (Atlantic City, 1980, and May Fools, 1990), and Leos Carax (Mauvais sang, 1986, and Holy Motors, 2012). He made five films with Claude Sautet, including Max et les ferrailleurs (1971) with Piccoli as a detective going undercover. “If you watch Piccoli carefully,” wrote Jaime N. Christley for Slant in 2012, “Max’s conscience makes occasional, intrusive appearances, in the form of eye- or lip-twitches that are so faint and so brief, you’re not even sure you saw them.” Craig Williams prefers Vincent, François, Paul and the Others (1974), which tracks a group of friends as they navigate their respective life crises. “Sautet often cast Piccoli as his stand-in in his films, using the actor’s malleability and gravitas to explore his own relationship with his material,” writes Williams.

And Beyond France

Piccoli rarely flirted with Hollywood, though he did take a role as a Soviet spy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). The year before, he seemed to be having an enjoyable time playing an inspector in Mario Bava’s comics-inspired Danger: Diabolik. Roger Ebert was amused: “It is nothing short of hilarious to find him in this enterprise, reciting lines like: ‘Whatever you say, chief.’”

In 1997, Piccoli reunited with Catherine Deneuve in Raúl Ruiz’s Genealogies of a Crime, playing a radical psychoanalyst in what the New York TimesStephen Holden called a “delightful metaphysical comedy.” Ruiz was working on Lines of Wellington when he died, which was completed by his widow and longtime editor Valeria Sarmiento in 2012. Piccoli played a Swiss merchant, Deneuve his wife, and Isabelle Huppert his sister-in-law. Variety’s Jay Weissberg found that “these actors effortlessly dissolve the artificiality of so much of the dialogue, creating a believable world that captures haute bourgeois life in a battle zone.”

Perhaps the last film to be well and truly steered by Piccoli’s lead performance was Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (2011). He plays “a cardinal reluctant to accept the ultimate promotion,” as Anita Gates puts it in the New York Times. When the film arrived in the States, Fernando F. Croce, writing for the House Next Door, found that “Piccoli brings a soulful emotional weight to his character’s crisis of confidence; his first couple of close-ups, upon realizing he has been appointed the new pope, brilliantly suggest a whole internal dramatic arc from awed excitement to troubled ambivalence.”

While we only learned of Piccoli’s death on Monday, he actually passed away on May 12. His wife, the writer and actress Ludivine Clerc, eventually asked Gilles Jacob, former president of the Cannes Film Festival, to make the official announcement. Jacob worked with Piccoli on the actor’s 2017 autobiography, I Lived in My Dreams, which Jordan Mintzer quotes in the Hollywood Reporter: “My ideal would be to astonish people through simplicity and without pretension. A truly great actor can be extremely modest about his work, in the pleasure he takes in such an extravagant and amusing profession. His success has nothing to do with being a mediocre braggart . . . I prefer those actors who remain completely secretive.”

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