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Jean-Louis Trintignant, Unshowy and Unforgettable

Jean-Louis Trintignant

As a straitlaced Catholic in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), an inscrutable fascist in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), or an eavesdropping judge in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red (1994), Jean-Louis Trintignant hinted—just barely but just enough—that there was much more going on in the minds of his characters than we could see. Since he passed away last Friday at the age of ninety-one, nearly every remembrance has referenced a quote that seems to have served as his credo. “The best actors in the world,” Trintignant once said, “are those who feel the most and show the least.”

When Trintignant appears on the screen, he practically dares us to try to read him, and we begin, of course, with the face. Sheila O’Malley finds it to be “practically come-hither in its beauty and sculpting,” a “perfect face for the movies.” But at RogerEbert.com, Dan Callahan notes that it could also be “a severe face, often impassive or sullen, so that when or if he smiled it was an event.” Callahan adds that in his scenes with Isabelle Huppert in Deep Water, Michel Deville’s 1981 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, the two actors seem to be staging “a sort of contest where they see who can be the most domineering on screen without moving a facial muscle.” Profiling Trintignant for the New York Times in 2012, Terrence Rafferty called him “one of the great stealth actors of the movies.”

Growing up in Piolenc, a small town in southeastern France, as the son of a well-to-do industrialist, Trintignant intended to become a lawyer, but while studying in Aix-en-Provence, he caught a production of Molière’s The Miser that changed his mind. He headed to Paris to study acting, and still in his early twenties, he was, as Jonathan Kandell points out in the New York Times, “hailed as one of the country’s most gifted young stage actors and was soon offered film contracts.”

Among the first he signed was for And God Created Woman (1956), the directorial debut of Roger Vadim, who intended to make his young wife, Brigitte Bardot, a major star. Mission accomplished. Both she and the film were overnight sensations. Trintignant plays Bardot’s cuckolded husband, and whether or not Vadim believed the unconfirmed rumors that the two were conducting a stormy behind-the-scenes affair, he cast Trintignant in his second feature, Les liaisons dangereuses (1959), one of several adaptations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel.

Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Trintignant maintained a relentless pace. After working with Valerio Zurlini (Violent Summer, 1959), Abel Gance (Austerlitz, 1960), Georges Franju (Spotlight on a Murderer, 1961), and Alain Cavalier (Le combat dans l’île, 1962), he took on a character that probably wasn’t much of a stretch, the timid law student Roberto, who falls in with the freewheeling Bruno played by Vittorio Gassman in Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962). “Trintignant aces the role of a repressed, moralistic prude who secretly desires liberation,” wrote Phillip Lopate in 2014. “Roberto clearly wants to learn from Bruno how to be braver, sexier, less inhibited, which is why he keeps hanging out with him, against his better judgment.”

Before flirting with the law and settling on acting, Trintignant seriously considered becoming a race-car driver like his famous uncle, Maurice Trintignant. He did eventually drive in a good number of amateur rallies, but first, he at least got to play a professional driver in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966). Trintignant’s Jean-Louis is a widower who falls in love with a widow, Anne (Anouk Aimée), and the swoony international box-office hit won the Palme d’Or in Cannes as well as two Oscars and two Golden Globes. Lelouch, Trintignant, and Aimée reteamed in 1986 for A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later and again in 2019 for The Best Years of a Life.

Trintignant won his own first major acting award, the Silver Bear in Berlin, for his lead performance in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies (1968). He later told the French daily Nice-Matin that it was “amusing the first time around, then not at all. Why do they give us awards? We’re already well paid. They’d be better off giving Oscars to people working jobs that aren’t fun at all.”

In 1969, he won the Best Actor award in Cannes for his turn as a prosecutor investigating an assassination in Costa-Gavras’s Z. “Throughout,” writes Terrence Rafferty, “he wears thick horn-rimmed glasses, an off-the-rack gray suit, and the unsmiling, unreadable expression of a bored bureaucrat. But this unremarkable-looking lawyer is, we gradually realize, a good deal smarter and fiercer than he seems. If we’d known that from the start, the performance (and the movie) would be less effective. Mr. Trintignant allows us the pleasure of discovery.”

My Night at Maud’s, in which Trintignant’s mild-mannered engineer resists an invitation to sleep with a lonely divorcee, premiered at Cannes that same year. Trintignant’s “comportment, his way of revealing himself one bit at a time,” as Kent Jones put it in 2006, was often harnessed by directors “for its sinister edge under extreme melodramatic conditions,” but in My Night at Maud’s, “it is the ordinary trait of a fairly common type of man seen under unremarkable, everyday circumstances . . . But the core of his presence here is something that is more or less unactable, which puts the film closer to Robert Bresson than one might think. In other words, who Trintignant is, as opposed to his considerable ability as an actor, sits at the heart of this character and this film.”

Stylistically, few directors were further from Rohmer than Bertolucci. “Deliberate and sumptuous,” The Conformist is “something that you could analyze for hours or passively devour to equal delight,” wrote Violet Lucca for Slant in 2010. “Trintignant’s performance is equally complex, managing to bridge both the serious and lighter side of complacency, mixing humor and sternness in equal measure.”

Working with René Clément (And Hope to Die, 1972), Jacques Deray (Flic Story, 1975), Ettore Scola (La terrazza, 1980), François Truffaut (Confidentially Yours, 1983), André Téchiné (Rendez-vous, 1985), and his second wife, Nadine Trintignant (Next Summer, 1985), Trintignant carried on making around three films a year before tapering off in the late 1980s. After scoring his fourth nomination for a César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for his performance in Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), he stepped away from the industry to take a few roles in theatrical productions and to tend to his vineyard in the South of France.

In the summer of 2003, Marie Trintignant, the daughter of Jean-Louis and Nadine Trintignant, the mother of four children, and an actor who, like her father, had worked with Claude Chabrol, was beaten severely by her boyfriend, Bertrand Cantat, the lead singer of the band Noir Désir. She died a few days later. Her father later said that he barely spoke for three months and thought often and seriously about killing himself.

Nearly a decade later, Michael Haneke approached Trintignant with the screenplay for Amour (2012). Georges (Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired piano teachers living quiet lives in a Parisian apartment when Anne suffers a stroke. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that Trintignant “brilliantly conveys Georges’s all-encompassing fear and anger at the world and at himself: his anger that Anne should be put in a situation that he can do nothing about and which he will finally have to take terrible steps to end.”

Amour won the Palme d’Or and an Oscar, and Trintignant said that he would take any role that Haneke offered at any time. Five years later, the offer came in the form of an invitation to reprise the role of Georges Laurent with a few crucial tweaks to the character’s backstory in Happy End (2017).

Though he recorded the narration for Michel Hazanavicius’s forthcoming animated feature The Most Precious of Cargos, Trintignant’s last appearance on screen was with Anouk Aimée, who was also called from retirement by Claude Lelouch for The Best Years of a Life, the second sequel to A Man and a Woman. “Working with lightly defined updates of characters who were never exactly Chekhovian in their complexity to begin with,” wrote Guy Lodge in Variety, “Trintignant and Aimée bring the film all the bittersweet gravitas they can manage, elevating the featherweight drama with a palpable sense of longing and a shared, rueful acknowledgement of mortality.”

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