Michel Piccoli was one of the most familiar faces in French cinema over the second half of the 20th century. He is listed as having made over 200 screen appearances; on film, on television and in short films/documentaries. This is greater than that of Max von Sydow, who was himself an incredibly active actor. Piccoli played a variety of characters but one common type was the bourgeois faced with economic, social or sexual problems. Some of these characters featured in films by major European talents including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.
He started in films immediately after the war in 1945. His early roles were mainly small supporting ones, often uncredited. He had a speaking part in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a vibrant film in Technicolor, recreating Montmartre in the 1890s. He also appeared in a film produced in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik [GDR], Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (1955). This probably reflected his relative left-wing views. Then he had an uncredited role in Rene Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955). And he obtained roles on television, both in TV films and TV series.
He had a supporting role as a night club owner in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Doulos (1962). Then in 1963 he played Paul Javal in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. The action takes place during a film production; we actually hear Fritz Lang’s famous put-down of CinemaScope, suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. Paul is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot); how we envied him. But she is the target of producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The latter is an extreme caricature of the overbearing over-sexed Hollywood producer; an early role model for Harvey Weinstein. But the film is equally memorable for the way Godard uses Raoul Courtard’s cinematography and Agnès Guillemot’s editing.
The following year saw his first outing with Luis Buñuel who was making his first collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid / Le journal d’une femme de chambre (1963). The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau (1900) and followed an English language version directed by Jean Renoir for a Hollywood independent production in 1946. This French version enjoys the advantage of the casting of Jeanne Moreau as the chambermaid, Célestine. Piccoli plays Monsieur Monteil, the head of the decadent household at the château where Celestial works. Piccoli’s character is an obsessed and exploitative bourgeois; both animals and women are his prey. Piccoli went on to appear in several more films directed by Buñuel. Belle de Jour (1967) stars Catherine Deneuve as a wife who seeks sexual variety by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson is a friend of her husband and but also a client at the brothel. He attempts to us his knowledge to pressurize Séverine (Deneuve) into providing sexual favours. This is Piccoli in his most familiar role; cool, aloof and predatory. His role in The Milky Way / La Voie lactée (1969) is a cameo as the Marquis de Sade. The film is a picaresque. story following the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compestelo with a variety of characters and theological issues; all presented in sardonic manner. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) finds Piccoli in a supporting role as a government minister. The film has one of Buñuel’s favourite plot devices, recurring dinner parties or similar events that never actually complete.
Piccoli appeared along with a host of French, German and US stars in Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il ?), a 1966 French-American epic historical war film about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 by the French Resistance and the Free French Forces during World War II.
In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) is a 1967 musical and romantic comedy directed by Jacques Demy, Piccoli is part of a cast which includes Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorleac, Danielle Darrieux and the non-French Gene Kelly. Piccoli plays the owner of a music store which is an important site in the key romance between Deneuve and Kelly. He and Danielle Darrieux provide supporting older generation romance.
Themroc (1973) saw Piccoli in the lead role in a film that gave two fingers to censors and became a cult classic. The actors had to manage without dialogue as the sound track was grunts, howls and similar. The plot included cannibalism and incest among other taboo activities. I, like many, enjoyed it immensely.
With his next film, La grande bouffe (Blow-out, 1973) Piccoli seemed in danger of becoming typed cast. The film celebrated suicide by over eating; with Michel one of a quartet dedicated to gross indulgence. The film also became a cult title; as funny as Themroc but not quite as subversive. The film also offered a plethora of canine characters but not in any way suitable for English susceptibilities.
French actors like Michel Piccoli appear to have a longer career that is the case in mainstream US and British industry; and Piccoli worked almost exclusively in French/European productions. In 1990 he had the title part in a fine Louis Malle film, Milou en mai / Milou in May. Set in an atypical 1968 setting, rural South-western France; family life and a funeral are disrupted in a minor way but mirroring the wider conflicts of this memorable year. French film titles suffer in English translation but the US release was especially maladroit, May Fools.
In La belle noiseuse (1991) Piccoli played the almost retired painter who revisits his art. The film is loosely adapted from the short story ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (‘The Unknown Masterpiece’) by Honoré de Balzac, with important additions by the director Jacques Rivette. The painter’s professional and personal interaction with his young model raises issues both about art and personal relationships.
In 1994 he played in The Emigrant / Al-mohager, a film by Youssef Chahine, the Egyptian film-maker. This biblical-based story, like his earlier foray in the GDR would seem to reflect his personal politics and principles; in this case working with a major film-maker whose films are rarely seen in the trans-Atlantic territories.
Piccoli continued appearing in films regularly up until 2015. Most years he appeared in several films, active until the age of ninety. Many of these, as was the case throughout his career, did not receive a British release. So I have only seen a small part of his output. But his best films were memorable, both for his screen presence and for the film being the product of really fine film-making. One would expect his work with the likes of Buñuel, Demy, Godard, Melville and Rivette to lead to new generations enjoying his skill and distinctive persona.