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Michel Piccoli, French film star who worked with Buñuel and Godard, dies at 94

French actor Michel Piccoli, left, with director Jean-Luc Godard at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982.
French actor Michel Piccoli, left, with director Jean-Luc Godard at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. (Jean-Jacques Levy/AP)

Michel Piccoli, a versatile and omnipresent face of French film who worked with directors including Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, bringing a touch of melancholy, menace and libertine glee to movies that became touchstones of international cinema, died May 12. He was 94.

In a statement shared with Agence France-Presse, his family said the cause was a stroke. French media reported that he died at his home in the northern town of Saint-Philbert-sur-Risle.

With his tall forehead, bushy eyebrows and expressive features, Mr. Piccoli was often cast as a Gallic everyman, playing tormented youngsters, wisecracking friends, amiable fiances and lecherous pleasure seekers. Cast as a priest in his first Buñuel film, “Death in the Garden” (1956), he played a panicked, newly elected pope in his last major movie, Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope” (2011) — and by then had become “a giant of European cinema,” wrote New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis.

Mr. Piccoli had credits in nearly 200 movies and dozens of plays and television series, appearing in American productions such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz” (1969), as the leader of a Soviet spy ring, and Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” (1980), as a casino manager.

But he made his greatest mark in France, where he worked with directors such as Jean Renoir and Jacques Demy, in the musicals “French Cancan” (1955) and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967), and with Jean-Pierre Melville, in the gangster flick “Le Doulos” (1962).

“Admirers of Michel Piccoli know better than to ignore any film, however slight, that is anchored and calmed by his presence,” New Yorker film reviewer Anthony Lane wrote in 2009.

When Agnès Varda made “One Hundred and One Nights” (1995), a dizzying celebration of cinema’s first hundred years, she cast Mr. Piccoli in the central role as an elderly man with a fading memory who pays a young woman to tell him stories about the movies. One scene had him arguing with Italian star Marcello Mastroianni over the best onscreen baths, including Mr. Piccoli’s time in the tub during “Contempt” (1963), his breakthrough film.

Directed by Godard, the boundary-breaking pioneer of the French New Wave, “Contempt” starred Jack Palance as a producer who hires Mr. Piccoli, a trilby-toting screenwriter, to work on a movie adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey.” An early scene showed Mr. Piccoli in bed with his wife — played by Brigitte Bardot, near the height of her celebrity — whom Mr. Piccoli reassures by complimenting each part of her body. “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically,” he declares.

“Piccoli, in the performance that made him a star, registers with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual-turned-hack who feels himself outmanned,” film critic Phillip Lopate wrote in 1997, in a Times essay that described “Contempt’s” influence on directors including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

Mr. Piccoli said that he was effectively playing Godard himself and recalled that the director “wanted me to wear his tie, his hat, his shoes.” He later appeared in Godard’s “Passion” (1982) and also maintained a long working relationship with Buñuel, appearing in six of the Spanish-born director’s movies and dubbing a character’s voice in Buñuel’s last film, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977).

Mr. Piccoli was the philandering estate owner in “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), opposite Jeanne Moreau; a sardonic suitor who leads Catherine Deneuve’s bored housewife to visit a brothel in “Belle de Jour” (1967), one of Buñuel’s biggest hits; and a government minister at a perpetually interrupted dinner party in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972).

“When we were shooting ‘Belle de Jour,’ ” Mr. Piccoli told Film Comment in 1983, “I posed for some publicity photos for Lui,” a French men’s magazine, “and Buñuel saw them and said, ‘You call this an actor? It’s a puppet! The great actor Piccoli doing a thing like that! What a horror!’ He folded the magazine under his arm and kept it throughout the shoot, making frequent references to it. I loved him.”

Mr. Piccoli was nominated four times for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, and received the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, as a judge in Marco Bellocchio’s “A Leap in the Dark.” A year later, he received the same award at the Berlin International Film Festival, for his role as a manipulative department-store manager in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s “Strange Affair.”

“You did not direct Piccoli. You filmed him,” former Cannes head Gilles Jacob told the AFP on Monday. Mr. Piccoli, he added, was “as indispensable to France as water, sun and wind.”

Jacques Daniel Michel Piccoli was born in Paris on Dec. 27, 1925. Although he was raised in a musical family — his father was a violinist with Italian roots, his mother a French pianist — he was more interested in theater, acting in a production of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at age 9.

Mr. Piccoli stayed with friends in southwestern France during World War II and became active in left-wing politics, later befriending philosophers and political activists Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. By the close of the war he had made his film debut as a dancing villager in “Sortilèges” (1945).

He also began appearing in theater productions in Paris, sometimes performing in six plays a year while working with leading directors such as Patrice Chéreau and Peter Brook. A popular TV movie adaptation of Molière’s play “Don Juan,” released in 1965 with Mr. Piccoli in the seductive title role, helped secure his status as a French screen star.

But for all his acclaim, he was never entirely part of the commercial mainstream. He played a disaffected policeman who falls for Romy Schneider’s prostitute character in “Max et les Ferrailleurs” (1971), and memorably starred as one of four friends who spend the weekend gorging themselves to death in “Le Grande Bouffe” (1973), a vomit-filled satire from Italian director Marco Ferreri.

“I’ve always gravitated toward subversives,” Mr. Piccoli told the Guardian in 1997. “Maybe ‘subversive’ isn’t a strong enough word, but everything that it implies of being marginal, being a provocateur.” Describing his acting choices, he later told the newspaper: “I don’t like motorways. I prefer side roads.”

His other movies included Costa-Gavras’s first feature film, “The Sleeping Car Murders” (1965); Leos Carax’s “Mauvais Sang” (1986) and “Holy Motors” (2012); Claude Chabrol’s “Red Wedding” (1973); Malle’s “May Fools” (1990); and Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s “I’m Going Home” (2001), playing an actor losing his memory.

Mr. Piccoli also starred in Jacques Rivette’s four-hour drama “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991), as a painter returning to a long-abandoned work. “There’s simply nobody better at portraying life experience in a gesture, a walk, standing still,” wrote Boston Globe movie critic Jay Carr.

Mr. Piccoli’s first two marriages, to actress Eléonore Hirt and actress-singer Juliette Gréco, ended in divorce. He had a daughter from his first marriage, Anne-Cordélia; and in 1978 married Ludivine Clerc, with whom he adopted two children, Inord and Missia. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

At 71, he wrote and directed his first of three feature films, “Alors Voilà” (1997), a comedy that won a critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival. He continued acting into his 80s and speculated that young filmmakers continued casting him in part because of his connection to film history, and his decades spent working with great directors while trying to retain his creative independence.

“In every profession there is a danger of being a marionette,” he told the Guardian. “After the director and the writer,” he added, “the actor can perform his own mise-en-scene, insert his own interpretation. There is a kind of complicated alchemy, a game of seduction, in which one accepts the imagination of the director without allowing him to kill the imagination of us actors.”

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