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Michel Piccoli, the prolific French actor known for his leading roles in such films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, has died. He was 94.
Piccoli’s family shared the news Monday. Agence France-Presse and French newspaper Le Figaro reported the news as well.
Piccoli starred in 230-plus movies throughout a career that spanned eight decades, beginning in the late 1940s and lasting all the way until 2015. He also boasted a bountiful stage and television career, performing in dozens of plays and telefilms.
Among the major filmmakers Piccoli worked with were Godard (1963’s Contempt, 1982’s Passion), Luis Buñuel (1967’s Belle de jour, 1969’s The Milky Way, 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), Claude Sautet (1970’s The Things of Life, 1971’s Max et les ferrailleurs), Marco Ferreri (1969’s Dillinger Is Dead, 1973’s La Grande Bouffe), Jean Renoir (1955’s French Cancan), Jacques Rivette (1991’s La Belle Noiseuse), Jean-Pierre Melville (1962’s Le Doulos) and Alfred Hitchcock (playing a Soviet spy in 1969’s Topaz).
He received best actor prizes in Cannes in 1980 for Marco Bellocchio’s A Leap in the Dark and a Silver Bear in Berlin two years later for Pierre Granier-Deferre’s Strange Affair. Although he was nominated four times for a Cesar award in France and twice for a Molière (his country’s equivalent of the Tony) for playing the lead in King Lear, he never received either prize during his lifetime.
Piccoli’s last major role was as a newly elected pope with major misgivings about his appointment in Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam. The film premiered in competition in Cannes in 2011 and earned him a David di Donatello award for best actor in Italy.
Discreet and professional, Piccoli often played quiet types with a dark streak or seductive types who could not be trusted. “When you’re acting, you need to take a step back from yourself and remain extremely confidential about the character you’re playing,” he told the French magazine Télérama in 2011 during one of his final interviews.
Born in Paris on Dec. 27, 1925, to a violinist father of Swiss origin and a French mother, Piccoli studied acting and landed his first major screen role as a coal miner in Louis Daquin’s social drama The Mark of the Day (1949).
He spent the next decade playing secondary roles in various shorts and features — including Renoir’s period piece French Cancan — before breaking out as a disgruntled lovesick playwright in Godard’s behind-the-scenes drama Contempt.
The film, adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel but inspired by Godard’s personal life, also featured Brigitte Bardot as his wife; she winds up betraying him for a Hollywood producer portrayed by Jack Palance. “The character was 99 percent Godard himself,” Piccoli said of the role. “The producers, who were fans of his, gave him an incredible amount of freedom. I had no idea that we were going to make a masterpiece.”
The first time Piccoli was cast by Spanish auteur Buñuel was for the 1956 adventure film Death in the Garden, where he played a priest. In Belle de jour, his character tips off a housewife (Catherine Deneuve) to a brothel, and he worked with Buñuel on four other features: Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty (1974).
“He taught me to be modest and to have a sense of humor,” Piccoli said of Buñuel. “Generally, he didn’t really like actors, but he loved being surrounding by an acting troupe. You were cast based on your personality, not because you were famous.”
Piccoli’s other major collaboration was with French writer-director Sautet, for whom he headlined five features throughout the 1970s. Like The Things of Life, in which he starred opposite Romy Schneider, the other films — including Vincent, François, Paul and the Others (1974) and Mado (1976) — were intimate, emotional dramas where Piccoli often played quietly anguished men in the midst of midlife crises.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Piccoli continued to work steadily — he had eight credits alone in 1982 — starring in such movies as Passion, Claude Lelouch’s Viva la vie (1984), Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang (1986), Louis Malle’s May Fools (1990) and Raoul Ruiz’s Genealogies of a Crime (1997).
He memorably played a painter trying to capture the nude portrait of a young woman in Jacques Rivette’s 1991 four-hour drama of artistic creation and obsession, La Belle Noiseuse, adapted from Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece.”
On stage, where he began acting in the 1940s, he starred in plays by Strindberg, Ibsen, Kleist, Chekov, Schnitzler, Molière, Marivaux and Paddy Chayefsky, among others.
Piccoli also directed three features and wrote the autobiography J’ai vecu dans mes reves (I Lived in My Dreams) with former Cannes topper Gilles Jacob. Published in 2017, the book revisits his long and prosperous career and reveals his thoughts about acting.
“My ideal would be to astonish people through simplicity and without pretension,” he wrote. “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.”
Piccoli in 1954 wed Swiss actress Eléonore Hirt, with whom he had a daughter, Anne-Cordelia. He also was married to French singer Juliette Greco from 1966 to 1977 and to screenwriter Ludivine Clerc from 1978 until his death.
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