Because he hadn’t appeared in a film for around half a decade, the death of Michel Piccoli (1925-2020) at the age of 94 came as no surprise; I had actually been wondering about his health only last week while chatting with a friend. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t deeply saddened by the news of his passing. He was, quite simply, one of my very favourite actors. I don’t often write this sort of tribute here, but in this case I felt the need to make an exception for one of the most memorably distinctive actors to have appeared on screen, who was a major presence in – and a beneficial influence on – European cinema for many decades.
I first encountered Piccoli – pictured top as ‘Monsieur Dame’ in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort – in the early-to-mid 1970s, when I was a classics student rapidly turning into a lifelong cinephile and feasting on movies like Themroc, Bof!, La Grande Bouffe, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour and Contempt. Because he was in so many of those films, for me he quickly became a kind of icon of European art cinema (and its subversive potential) just as I was beginning to understand what non-Hollywood/non-mainstream film could be. As the years passed, I discovered his earlier roles in films like French Cancan, La Mort en ce jardin and Le Doulos, while vainly trying to keeping up with him in later films. That wasn’t at all easy, as he was so prolific, and many of the movies never got a release outside of France. Still, notwithstanding the sheer number of films he appeared in – and he also directed occasionally, of course – I was never once disappointed. He was always absolutely riveting, each and every second he was on screen. His range was extraordinary – he could play fiery, tender, sophisticated primitive, sinister, seductive, shy, outgoing, kindly, cruel, diffident, obsessive, apathetic, passionate, brilliant, bestial, miserable, cheery, establishment, anarchic… anything and everything. (One of my own personal favourites is in Otar Iosseliani’s Gardens in Autumn, where Piccoli excels as – and clearly had a ball playing – the protagonist’s elderly mother. It should come as no surprise that, even in drag, he was utterly convincing. See below.)
The reason there was never a retrospective of Piccoli’s work at the NFT/BFI Southbank while I was head of programming there was that there were simply too many great films that would have to be included; while actors as prolific and important as Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck would usually be represented by around 36 films at the most, with Piccoli I calculated we’d need at least 40 to do him justice, and maybe more. That would entail a three-month season, and conventional marketing wisdom has it that the interest of the audience is very hard to sustain for more than two months unless it’s for one of the most famous auteurs, ie Hitchcock and very few others. Still, I did try to sneak Piccoli films into thematic seasons or into the ‘Big Screen Classics’ strand whenever there was an opportunity to do so. I knew I was far from alone in admiring his work.
I had the good fortune to meet Piccoli just twice; once when I interviewed him for the release of Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, the other at a small reception hosted by the French Institute for himself and Manoel de Oliveira (Piccoli was the star of the then ninety-something Portuguese director’s I’m Going Home). Both occasions were delightful, and the former left me absolutely elated, not so much because of what Piccoli had said in the interview, but because he was simply such a charming, intelligent and genuinely friendly human being. I recall walking through Leicester Square immediately after our conversation and stopping to watch the starlings above grouping in ever greater murmurations before settling down to roost (this was late afternoon in November); their spectacular soaring seemed to match my exhilaration at having spent an hour in the company of this great and in many ways very special man.
Piccoli’s is surely one of the most remarkable careers in the history of the cinema; it speaks not only of considerable expertise and intelligence, but also of superb taste and enormous integrity. His talent and commitment enabled many filmmakers to do their very best work, and the esteem in which his collaborative services was held is clear from the directors listed in his filmography; among others, he worked (in many cases repeatedly) with Angelopoulos, Bava, Bellocchio, Berlanga, Buñuel, Carax, Cavalier, Cavani, Chabrol, Chahine, Clouzot, Deville, Costa-Gavras, Demy, Ferreri, Godard, Iosseliani, Malle, Melville, Moretti, de Oliveira, Resnais, Renoir, Rivette, Ruiz, Sautet, Suleiman, Tavernier, Varda – and the aforementioned Mr Hitchcock (in Topaz, below).
Piccoli will be greatly missed, but we still have the films in all their glory. Here, in chronological order, are 20 of my favourites. They are not all leading roles – indeed, a few are relatively minor – but Piccoli, magnificently, is what you watch whenever he’s on screen.
Le Doulos, 1962, Jean-Pierre Melville
Contempt (Le Mépris), 1963, Jean-Luc Godard
The Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre), 1964, Luis Buñuel
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967, Jacques Demy
Belle de jour, 1967, Luis Buñuel
Les Choses de la vie (The Things in Life), 1970, Claude Sautet
Ten Days’ Wonder (La Décade prodigeuse), 1971, Claude Chabrol
Themroc, 1972, Claude Faraldo
Blood Wedding (Les Noces rouges), 1973, Claude Chabrol
Life Size (Grandeur nature), 1974, Luis Berlanga
Vincent, François, Paul et les autres, 1974, Claude Sautet
Des Enfants gâtés (Spoiled Children), 1977, Bertrand Tavernier
Dangerous Moves (Le Diagonale du fou), 1983, Richard Dembo
Une Chambre en ville (A Room in Town), 1984, Jacques Demy
Milou en mai, 1990, Louis Malle
La Belle Noiseuse, 1991, Jacques Rivette
Gardens in Autumn (Jardins en automne), 2006, Otar Iosseliani
Belle toujours, 2006, Manoel de Oliveira
The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache), 2007, Jacques Rivette
Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), 2011, Nanni Moretti