Michel Piccoli, an actor whose quiet intensity and mature sensuality made him a fixture of French cinema for more than a half-century, died on May 12, it was announced on Monday. He was 94.
The cause was a stroke, according to his wife, Ludivine Clerc, who confirmed his death in a short statement issued on her behalf by Gilles Jacob, former president of the Cannes Film Festival.
A veteran of the French stage, Piccoli also had more than 40 feature films and television movies on his résumé. He was in his late 30s when he starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s acclaimed drama “Contempt” (“Le Mépris”) in 1963, playing Brigitte Bardot’s unhappy husband, a screenwriter who sells out his talent and loses his wife to an American producer.
The film began with a bedroom scene between Piccoli and Bardot, in which his character declares, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.” More than three decades later, critic Phillip Lopate described this star-making performance as having registered “with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual turned hack who feels himself outmanned.”
French audiences had largely discovered Piccoli a year earlier, in “Le Doulos,” a gangster film noir in which his character is shot dead. American cineastes came to know him from the films of the great European directors, particularly Luis Buñuel.
His work with Buñuel included “Belle de Jour” (1967), in which Piccoli played a sinister, lecherous aristocrat who encourages a bored young Catherine Deneuve to go into prostitution and become a gangster’s lover by day while remaining the prim housewife of a handsome, young physician by night.
Piccoli also collaborated with. Buñuel on “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974).
He also worked with directors like Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Costa-Gavras, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. “La Grande Bouffe” (“The Big Feast,” 1973), directed by Marco Ferreri, was probably one of Piccoli’s best-known films to American moviegoers. The movie was a satire about four men determined to eat themselves to death during an orgiastic villa weekend.
In addition to Bardot and Deneuve, Piccoli’s list of co-stars included Anouk Aimée, Stéphane Audran, Leslie Caron, Jeanne Moreau, Natasha Parry, Dominique Sanda and Romy Schneider.
He occasionally appeared in American films, albeit in projects in which he played characters with French accents. He was a Soviet spy in France who commits suicide in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz” (1969), and an opera-loving croupier in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” (1980). “The urbane Michel Piccoli appears in a tiny role that he turns into a memorable cameo, that of a casino manager who, on the side, runs the croupier school,” Vincent Canby wrote in his review in The New York Times.
Piccoli’s career barely slowed in later life. Even as the likes of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo – French actors a decade younger than he – began to work less, Piccoli seemed to pick up his pace. He appeared in three films and a miniseries in 2012, when he was 86, and he was named best actor at the 2012 David di Donatello awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars, for his performance in Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope” (“Habemus Papam”), in which he portrayed a cardinal reluctant to accept the ultimate promotion.
That award joined his numerous film festival honours, including best actor awards at Cannes for “Salto nel Vuoto” (“Leap Into the Void,” 1980), in which he played a judge inconvenienced by his mentally disturbed sister; and at Berlin for “Une Étrange Affaire” (“Strange Affair,” 1981), for his role as a department store manager who leads an employee astray. He also received a 1997 best film award at Venice for “Alors Voilà,” a black comedy about a dysfunctional family, which he wrote (with Thomas Cheysson) and directed.
Piccoli was also nominated four times for the César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for his performances in “Strange Affair”; “Dangerous Moves” (1984), the story of an aging chess master; “May Fools” (1990), about a widowed vineyard manager at the time of the Paris student riots; and “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991), playing a painter with a creative block, in which he stars alongside Emmanuelle Béart.
In a 2009 profile in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, “Admirers of Michel Piccoli know better than to ignore any film, however slight, that is anchored and calmed by his presence.”
Piccoli never followed his alternative career dream, which was going into politics. “I have only one regret, not having had the energy to join a party,” he said in an interview with Télérama, a French magazine, in 2011. “I was too egotistical and wouldn’t give up my weekends.”
Jacques Daniel Michel Piccoli was born on Dec. 27, 1925, in Paris into a musical family. His father, Henri Piccoli, was an Italian violinist, and his mother, Marcelle (Expert-Bezançon) Piccoli, was a French pianist. He received a bachelor’s degree from the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris.
In the decade after World War II, he made a stage career for himself as an actor and manager, primarily with Théâtre Babylone and with the Reynauld-Barrault company. In the same period, he made his film acting debut, as a villager in “Sortilèges” (1945), a horror-crime drama. But it was four years until he made his second film, “Le Point du Jour” (“The Mark of the Day”), in which he had a small role. And he was still primarily a stage actor when he appeared as a wealthy farmer in a 1957 French film version of “The Crucible” (“Les Sorcières de Salem”), starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Even after Piccoli became a film star, he continued his French stage career. His roles included the leading lady’s aging-innocent brother in “The Cherry Orchard” in 1981 and the title role in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” in 1993. John Rockwell, writing in The Times, called his Borkman “a compelling mixture of craggy grandeur and nutsy eccentricity.”
His final film appearances were in “Lines of Wellington,” a 2012 French-Portuguese production that starred John Malkovich as the Duke of Wellington, and “Le Goût des Myrtilles” (“The Taste of Blueberries”), a drama about an older couple in a fantasy world, released in 2014. Whenever he could break away from his heavy film schedule, Piccoli retreated to his house on the Île de Ré, an island off the west coast of France, where he enjoyed bicycling down country roads.
Piccoli married three times and divorced twice. He and his first wife, actress Eléonore Hirt, married in 1954 and had a daughter. His second wife was singer and actress Juliette Gréco; the marriage lasted from 1966 to 1977. In 1980, he married Clerc, who survives him. Other survivors include a son, Inor; and two daughters, Anne-Cordélia and Missia.
“I like extremely discreet actors, who thus open up the imagination,” Piccoli said in a 2005 interview with French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, praising the midcentury American movie star Robert Mitchum as well as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
In the same interview, he revealed one of his techniques and his goal as an actor: “Listening, entering into the secret, has always been my way of keeping my bearings, in order to be the best marionette that they had imagined.”