Jean-Claude Brialy, 74; French Actor of New Wave Films

Jean-Claude Brialy, shown with Laurence de Monaghan in the 1970 Éric Rohmer film
Jean-Claude Brialy, shown with Laurence de Monaghan in the 1970 Éric Rohmer film "Claire's Knee," was often lauded for his versatility. (Columbia Pictures)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

Jean-Claude Brialy, 74, an actor who appeared in more than 100 French films, notably as a leading man in Claude Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge," Jean-Luc Godard's "A Woman Is a Woman" and Éric Rohmer's "Claire's Knee," died May 30 at his home near Paris. He had cancer.

Strikingly versatile, Mr. Brialy became a favorite performer in films by New Wave directors including Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard and Jacques Rivette. His ability to convey a range of sometimes conflicting emotions -- naivete, intelligence, obsession and deviousness -- worked to his advantage with New Wave directors, who preferred unpredictable storytelling techniques.

Mr. Brialy, the son of a high-ranking French army officer, was born March 30, 1933, in Aumale, Algeria. He detested his strict upbringing, and acting became an early form of rebellion. He had violent arguments with his father, who once locked him in a room to prevent his attending rehearsals for a school play in which he had a part.

Ironically, the military offered his best chance to leave home, and he managed to obtain work in an army film unit. After demobilization, he received brief stage training at a conservatory in Strasbourg and settled in Paris in 1954.

He fell in with a group of film journalists associated with the journal Cahiers du Cinema who formed the core of the New Wave movement. He was said to have become a favorite of Cahiers critic Andre Bazin by improvising crazy sketches outside a movie theater on the Champs Elysees. His reward was a free ticket to the film.

Soon he began appearing in short films by Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and others. In 1956, he played a lover in Rohmer's short film "La Sonate à Kreutzer" ("The Kreutzer Sonata"), a curio in which Rohmer portrayed both husband and wife (in drag).

Mr. Brialy continued to take small parts in his friends' increasingly important feature films, including Louis Malle's "Les Amants" ("The Lovers") and "Ascenseur Pour l'Échafaud" ("Elevator to the Gallows"); François Truffaut's "Les Quatre Cents Coups" ("The 400 Blows"); and Agnès Varda's "Cléo de 5 à 7" ("Cleo From 5 to 7").

He said Chabrol was his earliest champion, adding, "He was always convinced I was a good actor."

Mr. Brialy became a star in Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" ("Handsome Serge," 1958) as a young man who returns to his provincial home town and becomes obsessed with saving a self-destructive friend. The next year, Chabrol directed him in "Les Cousins" as a pleasure-seeking cynic. His co-star in both was Gerard Blain, a brooding actor often called the James Dean of France.

Through the 1960s, Mr. Brialy maintained an astonishingly active career. He appeared in seven films alone in 1961, including Godard's playful musical "A Woman Is a Woman," as one-third of a love triangle involving Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Karina, Godard's wife, played a stripper who wants to marry and have children.

He went on to leading roles in more straightforward dramas, including André Cayatte's crime thriller "Le Glaive et la Balance" ("The Sword and the Balance") with Anthony Perkins, and Jacques Deray's comedy "Le Gigolo" with Alida Valli.

He also had a supporting role in Philippe de Broca's anti-war film, "Le Roi de Coeur" ("King of Hearts") starring Alan Bates. The movie, set in a French insane asylum during World War I, proved immensely popular with American audiences and ran a decade in some theaters.

In Rohmer's "Le Genou de Claire" ("Claire's Knee," 1970), Mr. Brialy played a self-involved diplomat who has an inexplicable desire to touch the knee of a friend's teenage daughter. The film, perplexing to some, lyrical and mysterious to others, had many champions over the years, including New York Times film critic Vincent Canby.

Mr. Brialy's ability to deadpan in ludicrous circumstances made him an ideal leading man in Luis Buñuel's absurd 1974 drama "Le Fantôme de la Liberté" ("The Phantom of Liberty"). In one scene, he and Monica Vitti, playing his wife, lie in bed as an ostrich passes by.

He began directing films in the early 1970s and proved himself a capable craftsman in many genres. His 1971 directorial debut, "Églantine," was an enchanting story set in the 19th century of a boy's visit to his grandmother. His 1974 feature "Un Amour De Pluie" ("Loving in the Rain") starred Romy Schneider as a woman who takes her daughter to a summer resort in search of carnal pleasures.

Mr. Brialy owned a Paris theater and was a frequent guest on radio and television. He once noted his chief interests as collecting antique watches and books as well as riding and swimming.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company