This afternoon whilst browsing through what was trending on Twitter, I discovered the death of Michel Piccoli at the age of 94. It was only yesterday that I was thinking of one of his features, We Have a Pope, which made his passing all the more poignant. He established his presence as one of the leading figures of French cinema in a career that saw him directed by with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and multiple times with Leos Carax and saw him star alongside a wide range of actors from Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot, Romy Scheider, Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche and John Malkovich. Here are six films from that come into mind when thinking of one of French cinema’s most influential actors. RIP Mr French Cinema.
Le Mepris (1963)
One of the finest works of Godard’s catalogue, Le Mepris saw Piccoli as the screenwriter working for Fritz Lang whilst married to Brigitte Bardot’s Camille. The film was also notable for its lengthy apartment sequence, a topsy-turvy of mood and expression as the sequence suggests the conclusion of their marriage. Referenced on the poster for the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, Piccoli’s ascent onto the Casa Malaparte is perhaps one of the most iconic shots in French cinema, coming straight after the shocking twist Godard pulls out from nowhere.
The Things of Life (1970)
In this flashback-driven piece by Claude Miller, Piccoli portrayed a man living a secret double life with his wife and mistress, his life literally flashing before his eyes as he is mortally injured in a car crash as a result of his impatience. Piccoli’s accident is presented in a range of slow-motion shots designed to present in painful detail what his behaviour has led to, with the crash presented in normal time afterwards, followed by him reflecting during what turn out to be his last minutes alive.
Les Noces Rogues (1973)
Under the direction of Claude Chabrol, this erotic thriller saw Piccoli play a man whose affair with a married woman and desire to be together played by Chabrol regular eventually leads to them murdering both their spouses. The lengths each of them seek to be together made for one of Chabrol’s juicier works and the characterisations from Piccoli and Audran were humane enough to the point where in some odd way, a level of sympathy is felt for them in the very last scene. Rarely do fictional killers garner such a reaction, (thankfully).
The Night is Young (1986)
In Leos Carax’s second feature, he employed Piccoli to star alongside a younger duo by the names of Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant. This focused on the ambitious theft of a serum designed to cure an STD and saw him play the much older lover of Binoche who finds himself challenged for her affections by his protégé. A hybrid of surrealist adventure, this presented Piccoli with the chance to work with those crafting the Cinema du Look movement, demonstrating his ability to move successfully with the times. Carax would continue to hold him in high regard when he cast him in a supporting role for 2012’s ultra-surreal drama Holy Motors.
I’m Going Home (2001)
Directed by Portuguese veteran Manuel de Olivera, this focused on an actor whose life is turned upside down when his wife, daughter and son-in-law die in a car accident, leading to him taking in his grandson. Presenting the life of a well-known actor navigating through a traumatic time, the film offers a unique portrayal of dealing with grief, particularly when he randomly accepts a film role with John Malkovich portraying the director of the film-within-a-film. His subsequent decision at the end presents a justified ambiguity, but Piccoli’s restraint of the character suggests a wanting of ten minutes more with this character, such are the loose ends, but also the curiosity of his plight.
We Have a Pope (2011)
One of Piccoli’s last roles saw him take on the role of a newly-elected cardinal who upon being elected the role of Pope finds himself suffering from cold feet and flees to the streets of Italy, mixing with the ordinary folk. Directed by Nanni Moretti, this satirical take on the Catholic church was tailor-made for him, an actor in his twilight years capable of holding a movie together just as he had done in the decades prior and showing that well into his 80s, his presence was captivating as ever.