Monday, June 15, 2020

Living in his dreams: Deceased Artiste Michel Piccoli

In America, A-list performers don’t often challenge themselves — the safest bet is the best bet for them. In Europe and the U.K., perhaps because more actors have a solid grounding in theater and are aware of the other arts in general, A-listers often take on the most peculiar roles or guest star in films that are doomed to fail at the box office, in order to test their skills and take on a more difficult role or work with an odder filmmaker. The late Michel Piccoli was a sublime example of this, as he chose  quality over quantity (read: a big paycheck) and was willing to be unlikeable (something American stars never want to do) if it meant working with a great director.

The list of filmmakers he worked for is a who’s who of European greats. When he worked in English, he either acted for a European director (as with Louis Malle on Atlantic City) or took a part to be directed by a legend — the best example being Alfred Hitchcock, for whom Piccoli worked in the underwhelming Topaz (1969).
Younger Michel (with
last name spelled wrong!)

I would like to focus in on the stranger titles that Piccoli appeared in, but first a short list of the Euro cine-gods and goddesses he worked for, who hailed from Greece (Angelopoulos), Poland (Skolimowski), and Portugal (de Oliviera). He also acted quite a bit for Italian directors — among them Bellochio, Bava, Nanni Moretti, and Marco Ferreri.

But he most often worked in French, for the crème de la crème of French cinema. The auteurs from his homeland that he worked with included: Renoir, Melville, Godard, Varda, Resnais, Demy, Chabrol, Malle, Rivette, Sautet, Lelouch, Claude Miller, Bonello, Blier, Jane Birkin, and Leos Carax.

A little “resume” for Piccoli (no English subs):

Throughout his career Piccoli was very willing to appear in unusual fare. After years of stardom in big-budget features directed by legendary directors he was still willing in the Eighties, Nineties, and even 2000s to play leads in lower-budgeted films made by new, young talents.

In 1986, he starred in Carax’s second feature, Mauvais Sang, where he plays a brutish hoodlum. Carax crafted the film as a kinetic crime picture in the manner of French New Wave, but he also included dialog-less moments that were surely inspired by silent cinema. More recently, Piccoli showed up in a small part in Carax’s amorphous oddball gem, Holy Motors (2012).

Going back to his “golden years,” we need to consult the two books he wrote. The first was an item called Dialogues égoïstes (1976), which contains “various writings, intimate diaries, souvenirs, and memories.” That book isn’t easily found, but his more recent memoir, composed as a series of inquisitive letters from his longtime friend, Giles Jacob (former president of the Cannes Film Festival), is available. In that book he discusses his life, career, and thoughts about acting in an informal but cogent fashion. (Actual correspondence between Jacob and Piccoli is found in the back of the book — Michel’s handwriting is florid and barely readable.)

The Piccoli-Jacob “letters” book is called J'ai vécu dans mes rêves ("I lived in my dreams," Grasset, 2015). In it he does provide some wonderful anecdotes about the directors he was most impressed by. The first one, of course was the master-director whom he became a regular collaborator with — none other than the peerless Don Luis Bunuel. Piccoli acted in six of his films and incarnated the perfect bourgeois for him, looking elegant while often evincing darker undertones.

A famous scene from Belle de Jour (sans English subs, but you don’t need them):

To give a semblance of what it was like working with Bunuel, he provides us with some of the odd on-set badinage he used to have with Don Luis. Hence his account of this discussion. (He doesn’t identify which picture they were making, but includes it among his memories of Death in the Garden.)

One day, I asked him how his wife was. He told me that she was well, and that she had a lover. Is he kidding? I began to laugh and asked him if he knew the lover. “Yeah, it’s a priest.” I laughed more. He told me to stop laughing, that this situation could happen to me. A few days later I asked him how his wife’s lover was doing. “It’s over,” he told me. “My wife is dead.” [pp. 64-65, translations are mine — a few are looser than others]

From Death in the Garden (1956):

A much less fruitful collaboration was his work with Hitchcock on Topaz. He formed a bond with the director — as he seemed to with most of the mega-talented artists he worked with (except for Philippe Noiret, whom he admired but describes as being solitary on the film sets they shared, and Yves Montand, whom he apparently was not fond of at all). Topaz was indeed a dud, but it allowed Piccoli to see that Hitchcock preferred the actors to not ask him “contextualizing” questions about their work:

I went to see Hitchcock, who described the scene to me. I looked at him and asked him [in English], “OK, yes, but what is the big meaning?” He laughed and said to me [again, in English], “Your motivation is money.” I then laughed. “You won’t explain my character to me?” “Not a chance,” he responded. “You actors, you earn enough money. You even want me to explain your character! Do you think I explained characters to James Stewart? Thank god he never asked that question….” [pp. 66-67]

Jean-Luc Godard, currently the world’s greatest living filmmaker (without question), used him three times. Most viewers are familiar with Piccoli’s lead role in
Le Mepris (aka “Contempt,” 1963), but are not aware of his starring role in the gorgeous Passion (1982), and his terrific role as a straight man for Godard in the filmmaker’s salute to the 100th anniversary of the cinema, 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema (1995).

The last-mentioned was part of the TV series “Century of Cinema,” produced by the BFI and Miramax. Since Miramax had absolutely no interest in letting the films other than the Scorsese epic doc be widely seen by the public, they played briefly in theaters and museums and then disappeared in America – no VHS or DVD release ever. Which is a shame, as Piccoli and Godard function as a sort of deadpan comedy team in this video essay.

MP and JLG.
Piccoli has the status of the “president” of “France’s Century of Cinema,” and so Uncle Jean feels it necessary to pose many questions to him about the history of cinema — and basically how it’s been forgotten by the average Frenchman. Piccoli argues that this history should indeed be celebrated. But, Godard, counters, it’s not actually the centennial of the public showing of the first film that is being celebrated, but instead the first time that someone *paid* to see a film. The short feature is well worth seeing, and not only because Godard takes a verbal swipe at everyone’s favorite “appropriator” of other artists’ ideas, Quentin Tarantino.

In Rêves Piccoli offers his detailed memories of Le Mepris. He notes that he, Bardot, and Fritz Lang all loved doing the film. For his part, Jack Palance was annoyed – which, Piccoli notes, worked very well for his performance.

In the book Piccoli offers lovely little mini-portraits of Godard, Lang, and BB (whom he says possessed “innocence and spontaneity...” and “a formidable energy”). He maintains that, even at this early stage in the game, Godard “had a great authority about him.”

He sometimes gives actors the feeling that they have to fend for themselves. As if there is nothing to do but just do it, without furnishing them with hours of lengthy explanation — the kind of explanations we’re used to from most directors.” [p. 74]

During the shoot, which was “both very pleasant and very serious” Piccoli had “some of the most beautiful moments that I have ever lived through with my director and my fellow performers.” He also, true to form, had at least one memorably colorful conversation with Uncle Jean:

...Godard asked me what I was going do over the weekend, and I told him I was going to stay in Italy and would no doubt visit Pompei. Knowing that I had a woman waiting for me in Paris, he asked me “You prefer dead cities to living women?” [p. 70]

From Godard, a director whose works are poetic but which can usually be deciphered, his discussion of his directors moves on in the book to that master of bizarre allegory, Marco Ferreri. (Whom I interviewed for the Funhouse in 1996, in his only American TV interview.)

“For me, Marco Ferreri has been one of the most important directors and also a very good friend…. He can be contemptible if he thinks you’ve wasted his time, and he’s not wrong. With him, you have to go! ‘We should do it now —What? —What we have to do!’ [pp. 76-77]

He calls Ferreri’s minimalist masterwork Dillinger Is Dead (1969) both “a beautiful film, stunning….” and “a crazy film that one can’t explain….” It also boasts a wonderful score with ample vocalese.

He also discusses the dynamic between the four actors who were the leads of Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973) – Mastroianni, Noiret, Tognazzi, and he – and also veers off into a discussion of the auteur theory.

I was the marionette de Ferreri…. You’re mistaken, Gilles, when you say that film is based on the actor’s art. No, it’s not the actor’s art, it’s that of the auteur, of the director. It’s their art that is most important. I am not alone on the screen because I’m with the director. It’s Ferreri that we see….

Piccoli and Ferreri.

If I get it right, it’s because I have a passion for my metier, for this singular work, and most of all for the director who has offered me the “musical score” for which he has invented this whole miraculous game. I do invent something, but I am certainly not the author or the coauthor. Even if I could think that I succeeded admirably, was I really the one who succeeded? Isn’t it first and foremost the director I’m working for, and whose genius can be seen immediately? [pp. 78-79]

Piccoli’s memorable death scene in La Grande Bouffe:

It’s most pleasing that Piccoli highlights perhaps his strangest film not in the “cinema” chapter but instead in the one on acting. Themroc (1973), directed and written by Claude Faraldo, is a remarkably singular film that one couldn’t *ever* imagine an American actor starring in. (Well, perhaps Nick Nolte in his prime… but, even there, he’d have probably wanted the character to have some dialogue.)

A perfect “Sixties movie” (since the Sixties lasted well into the Seventies), Themroc is a study in personal revolution. The fearless M. Piccoli plays the lead character, a grunting, yelling worker (the whole film is in a made-up language that has a little — but not much — to do with French) who goes mad one day. He is fired from his job, so he goes home, sleeps with his sister, bricks up the door to his room, bashes a hole in the wall leading out to a courtyard, tosses furniture out the newfound hole, repels the cops (even roasting and eating one), and then has a mindblowing orgy (which includes the great Patrick Dewaere in one of his first “adult” roles as an undercover cop).

The film is a brazen act of provocation that defies laws of logic, language, and linearity. It’s truly rebellious and not a little nuts, and is proud to be so. Piccoli rhapsodizes about it, again, in the chapter on acting in Rêves :

… a unique, wordless film that I love a lot, a strange film, strongly anarchic and at the same time heavy and serious, very honest, mocking and elegant at the same time. It’s strange and sad that a filmmaker as unique as Claude Faraldo remains so little known. He had a great authority, a passion for creativity, and a lot of nerve. I love watching Themroc, I have a great passion for that film. [p. 105]

The whole film is currently "tucked away" online. [To watch this video, click the words "Watch on Odnoklassniki."]

J'ai vécu dans mes rêves is quite a moving little tome – it’s not a solid autobiography but, as its conversational structure indicates, it’s intended to sound like two friends speaking to each other. When Piccoli compares himself to a “pen that’s run out of ink” in the final pages, one can only think of the great late-career films he made. These included I’m Going Home (2001) by de Oliviera, We Have a Pope (2011) by Moretti, and the exquisite You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) by Resnais.

Resnais made several “farewell” movies, but of the bunch, Nothin’ is clearly the best. In it, a group of actors (who use their own names and are essentially playing themselves) gather at the home of their dead director for a memorial service where his final video message to them will be shown. The guests are comprised of two sets of performers, who did two different productions of Eurydice with the director, in two different eras.

In You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! (2013),
at the age of 88.
The director asks them to watch a recording of a young theater troupe performing Eurydice and suddenly the lines between the different productions blur, and the actors are both reliving the play and their own past relationships with each other. It’s a masterful final work (which, naturally enough, given Resnais’ boundless energy, was followed by another final work, Life of Riley).

It’s also quite naturally the place to end any tribute to M. Piccoli, since it features him as the “elder statesman” but also as part of an ensemble. And, as distinguished as he became and as distinct as his starring roles were (in films like Rivette's beautiful and timeless La Belle Noiseuse), he always seemed to blend most beautifully into ensemble pieces. One thinks of his memorable moments in The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and La Grande Bouffe, among many others.