With a career spanning more than 170 films, Michel Piccoli, who has died aged 94, was one of the finest, most versatile actors in cinema. From artists to everymen, killers to popes, his style is malleable, but his presence is singular. After beginning his film career in the mid-1950s, he worked with some of the greatest directors in the medium, often multiple times. His trajectory speaks of a certain faith in auteurs which is prevalent in the careers of many of the great French actors, showing a willingness to feature in lead or supporting roles, with established names or newcomers. These are his 10 essential performances.
Belle de jour (1967)
Director Luis Buñuel
Piccoli starred in several of Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel’s collaborations with French novelist and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Equally adept at virtue and transgression, the actor was perfectly suited to the pair’s eviscerating satires of bourgeois life. In Belle de jour, Piccoli’s Henri is the conduit for housewife Séverine’s (Catherine Deneuve) illicit desires; he is the connection between the strictures of reality and the liberation of fantasy. Piccoli reprised the role in 2006 in Belle toujours, a belated sequel directed by Manoel de Oliveira (with Bulle Ogier in the Deneuve role). A short, philosophical frolic, it plays like a cinematic rendition of a Milan Kundera novella, reflecting the themes of the original through the prism of age and experience.
Director Alfred Hitchcock
The pair of Cold War thrillers that Alfred Hitchcock made between Marnie (1964) and Frenzy (1972) are bloated, overwrought affairs. Along with Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz saw the director regressing into a form of classicism that was long past its sell-by date, betraying a distinct lack of ambition after a period of trailblazing creativity. Piccoli plays the head of a Soviet spy ring operating in France during the Cold War. Though the film itself is a somewhat of a trudge, Piccoli channels the anxiety of the age in a performance bristling with paranoia. The fate of his character is darker in the American cut of the film; more in keeping with the spirit of the times, but also in tune with the tenor of his performance.
Les Noces rouges (1973)
Director Claude Chabrol
The blurred line between violent and sexual impulses is a recurring theme throughout Claude Chabrol’s work. Les Noces rouges – made right in the middle of the director’s golden era – starred Piccoli as a local politician engaged in a passionate affair with the local mayor’s wife, played by Chabrol’s then wife Stéphane Audran. Like so many of the director’s thrillers, the bourgeois values of the central pair prove to be nothing more than a facade, concealing baser desires, and Piccoli represents the perfect embodiment of this central duality. As the thrill of illicit eroticism leads to murderous impulses, Chabrol subversively conflates the allure of violence with that of sex; both destructive, both exciting.
Vincent, François, Paul… et les autres (1974)
Director Claude Sautet
Obliquely but derisively referenced by Jean-Luc Godard in his innovative multi-screen tableaux Numero deux (1975), Claude Sautet’s Vincent, François, Paul… et les autres may have seemed like a return to the cinéma de qualité aesthetic despised by the French auteurists, but it is a brilliantly incisive work by an undervalued master. Pitched somewhere between the self-laceration of John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970) and the bourgeois navel-gazing of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), it follows a group of friends supporting each other through their respective mid-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. Though many would favour Les Choses de la vie (1970), this earlier film is the best of Piccoli’s collaborations with Sautet, and the one that cuts closest to the bone.
Director Jean-Luc Godard
Though his performance in Le Mépris (1963) is his most well-known in a Jean-Luc Godard film, Piccoli’s turn in Passion (1982) is arguably even more compelling. The former work, made at the height of the nouvelle vague, is the closest Godard came to making an actors’ showcase, with Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot as the nucleus of the picture. 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 labour disputes and tableaux vivants, Piccoli is a threatening presence; his performance is a rock in a sea of uncertainty.
Mauvais Sang (1986)
Director Leos Carax
Mauvais Sang – Leos Carax’s second film – is a significant creative leap from his debut, Boy Meets Girl (1984). In channelling the latter’s emotional yearning into a distinct dystopian aesthetic, Carax crafted a high-concept parable that’s defined by the personal. In the Paris of the near future, Denis Lavant is the director’s alter ego, recruited by Piccoli’s ageing criminal to steal a serum for a disease killing young people who have sex without emotional involvement. The relationship between the pair betrays the generational anxieties of teenagers coming of age in the individual-centric 1980s. Piccoli uses cynicism as a survival tactic, whereas Lavant – and, by extension, Carax – places his faith in the earnest rebellion of youth.
La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
Director Jacques Rivette
Probably one of the greatest films ever made about the artistic process, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse – based on ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ by Honoré de Balzac – stars Piccoli as a reclusive artist inspired to return to an unfinished painting by a striking young woman (Emmanuelle Béart). Like many of Rivette’s films, the picture centres on lengthy scenes of artistic labour, suggesting as always that the truth is found in the process. This focus on the minutiae of creation is as instructive on the role of the muse as it is on that of the painter. Piccoli is a sturdy presence, emphasising the craftsman beneath the artist.
Les Cents et Une Nuits de Simon Cinéma (1995)
Director Agnès Varda
Les Cent et Une nuits de Simon Cinéma – Agnès Varda’s playful take on the history of motion pictures – stars Piccoli as man who hires a young film student (Julie Gayet) to come to his castle to help his ailing memory by telling him the stories of various films. Featuring everyone from Alain Delon to Robert De Niro, it’s possibly the starriest French film ever made, but Piccoli is the heart of the picture, giving the most flamboyant performance of his career. There are innumerable highlights, but cinephiles will relish the comparison between the bath scenes in Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Godard’s Le Mépris, with Marcello Mastroianni and Piccoli debating the genesis of the idea.
Habemus Papam (2011)
Director Nanni Moretti
Nanni Moretti’s quasi-screwball story of an absconding pope, Habemus Papam is far from being the best of Piccoli’s films, but it is notable as one of his most significant lead roles of the last decade. Forsaking the more pointed political satire of Il caimano (2006), Moretti takes a gentler tone, but still demonstrates a serious-minded curiosity towards the predicament on display. Piccoli is terrific, taking advantage of the comic potential of the premise while also portraying the vulnerability and anxiety of the runaway pontiff. Indeed, the whole picture is a balancing act; between comedy and drama, religion and secularism.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012)
Director Alain Resnais
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) and Life of Riley (2014), the last two films by Alain Resnais, both deal with the mechanics of performance and the shifting line separating art and life. The former follows a group of heavyweight French thespians – all playing themselves – who gather together on the instructions of a deceased playwright they all once worked with. The picture concerns memory and its impact on performance, with each actor’s turn drawing on the recollection of past glories. Piccoli is clearly the most well-respected among the group; referred to by his surname, the awe and deference is evident throughout. It could be true, or it could simply have been Resnais’ mischievous take on the Piccoli legend.