There’s something wrong with every Michel Piccoli character. Despite the wide variety of films in which the French actor has appeared as a lead actor or supporting player, his key performances carry a similar note of discord that resonates long after the film is over. This is not because of a bizarre acting style or an affected look: Michel Piccoli has made a career (now in its 7th decade) of playing strange men, men that cause trouble and are always at odds with the world they inhabit.
In the U.S., Michel Piccoli is not a famous French actor in the same way that Americans know the names of Alain Delon, Jean Gabin, or Gerard Depardieu. Despite his low-key place in our understanding of French cinema, reviewing Piccoli’s 60+ years in film will take you through screenings of such major arthouse filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Marco Ferreri, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, Mario Bava, Alain Resnais, Leos Carax, and Louis Malle—not to mention Alfred Hitchcock. Piccoli has co-starred opposite Catherine Deneuve and Romy Schneider numerous times, as well as Jeanne Moreau, Stéphane Audran, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, and Jane Birkin, to name a few. At age 92 he is still performing in films here and there, most notably 2011’s We Have a Pope, an international comedy about a reluctant new pope who seeks guidance from a therapist.
Transitioning from theater roles into the cinema in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Piccoli didn’t reach prominence as an actor until well into his forties. His swarthy, seasoned look lent itself to typecasting as the corrupt bourgeois, a pillar-of-the-community type whose status belies his hidden desires or perversions. Luis Buñuel utilized Piccoli in roles great and small in seven films, and Jean-Luc Godard cast Piccoli as his doppelgänger in Contempt (1963), sandwiching his performance between the hammish theatrics of Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance. Hitchcock’s underwhelming espionage thriller Topaz (1969) has one bright spot in Piccoli as the role of the ultimate Euro-arch-villain, sporting a velvet robe and grinning through his cigar as he sells his country out to the Russians and beds his best friend’s wife.
Piccoli is the fatally passive writer Paul Javal conversing with American film producer Prokosch (Jack Palance)
Piccoli enjoying himself in Topaz
The key role to begin a study of Piccoli’s mercurial onscreen character would be in Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour, as the idle bourgeois Husson. Catherine Deneuve’s central character Séverine is both repelled and compelled by Husson, a friend of her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). Husson, amused by Séverine’s apparent naiveté, takes advantage of his encounters with her to undermine her placid marriage, teasing her by whispering innuendo and invitations to clandestine meetings in her ear. Although Piccoli’s character only appears in a handful of scenes, it’s his role in Séverine’s life that disrupts the uneasy balance between her calm exterior and inner fantasies of humiliation and degradation. A suggestive remark by Husson about a mutual friend’s moonlighting as a prostitute incites Séverine to pursue an afternoon job at a brothel; and it’s Husson’s eventual discovery of her double life that leads to Séverine’s undoing.
Husson (Piccoli) provokes Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) at the beginning of Belle de Jour
One of Séverine's fantasies in which Husson pelts her with manure
Husson discovers Séverine's afternoon rôle in Belle de Jour
Piccoli’s characters often play the provocateur or the subversive element that sets the action spinning. In Strange Affair (1981), as a mysterious new CEO Piccoli induces his protégé Louis (Gerard Lanvin) to reject his fiance and devote his life fully to the company; in Le Trio Infernal (1974) it’s his depraved magnetism as the lawyer Sarret that impels sisters (played by Romy Schneider and Mascha Gonska) to commit marriages and murders for his amusement and profit. Conversely, in Death in the Garden (1956) his role is that of Jesuit priest Father Lizardi, the sole voice of morality and love amongst a gang of desperate, lawless characters clamoring for survival in the Mexican jungle. It’s Lizardi’s compassionate behavior and devotion to good that emphasizes the brutal carelessness of the supposed “heroes” of the story, played by Simone Signoret and Georges Marchal.
An array of roles: La Grande Bouffe; Strange Affair; Death in the Garden; Le Trio Infernal; La Belle Noiseuse; The Creatures
Piccoli is never afraid to make a silly face or play the fool if the role calls for it. His men are not “standard fare” and often find themselves in bizarre worlds of their own making. One of his best roles is in Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead (1969), a nearly silent film in which Piccoli stars as the usual-businessman type who whiles away an evening cooking, watching home movies, and contemplating a life change that involves sex, murder, and escape to a tropical island. In May Fools (1990), he’s a beyond-middle-age man who’s still naive and dreamy, encouraging his bitter family to embrace the spirit of the May ’68 strikes happening around them in France in order to enjoy nature, laughter, and their own inner children. And in Ferreri’s notorious La Grande Bouffe (1973) he joins fellow actors Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi who literally eat themselves to death out of boredom and ennui.
ABOVE: Piccoli whiles away an evening in Marco Ferreri's Dillinger is Dead. BELOW: Appearing as Buñuel's bureaucrat-on-call in The Phantom of Liberty (1974) left; and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) right
In interviews, Piccoli is always asked about his experiences with prominent figures like Godard, Buñel, Gene Kelly, Brigitte Bardot, or Hitchcock (and in the 1960s and ’70s, his off-screen marriage to French pop star Juliette Gréco). He’s careful to keep his stories self-effacing and anecdotal, respecting the privacy even of colleagues who have passed long ago. Cutting off his reminiscences about working with the surreal Spanish director, Piccoli remarks with a twinkle, “Mr. Buñuel was extremely discreet. For me to publicly declare our friendship is already going too far.” Michel Piccoli’s outward manner is reflective and humble; his inner anarchist becomes visible only when looking back on his career of madness, a lifetime spent depicting nefarious, corrupt, and wholly unique men.
Piccoli apologizes for talking too much in a 2008 interview with Juan-Luis Buñuel
Death in the Garden (1956) - Available on DVD
Le Doulos (1963) - Available on Criterion DVD
Contempt (1963) - Although the Criterion DVD is out of print, a new Bluray/DVD combo has been released by Lion’s Gate
Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) - Available streaming via FilmStruck
Compartiment tueurs / Sleeping Car Murders (1965) - Piccoli in a small role as a deranged murder suspect in an early Costa-Gavras thriller. Try Movie Detective
La Guerre Est Finie (1966) - Piccoli harasses Yves Montand early on in this classic Alain Resnais meditation on war and identity. The US DVD release is out of print, try Movie Detective
The Creatures (1966) - Agnes Varda’s follow up to Cleo from 5 to 7 is this obscure magical-realist fairy tale of sorts starring Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve. An acquired taste but a must-see for Varda fans or Piccoli completist like yours truly. Try Movie Detective
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - Piccoli dances but does not sing in Demy’s Technicolor musical, alongside Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly (!). Available from Criterion and FilmStruck
Belle de Jour (1967) - Available from Criterion and FilmStruck
Danger: Diabolik (1968) - Out of print on DVD
La Chamade / Heartbeat (1968) - Dated romance drama with Piccoli and Deneuve is available on DVD
Dillinger is Dead (1969) - Available from Criterion and FilmStruck
Topaz (1969) - Available on DVD and streaming via Starz for free
Le Choses de la Vie / The Things of Life (1970) - Intriguing drama with Piccoli and Romy Schneider. Elusive but occasionally available via FilmStruck and as a Region 2 PAL import DVD
Max and the Junkmen (1971) - Another Piccoli and Schneider pairing available streaming via FilmStruck
Ten Days Wonder (1971) - Claude Chabrol production co-starring Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles. Available on DVD dubbed in English. I haven’t seen this version so I don’t know if Piccoli’s voice is dubbed or if it’s his voice.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) - Piccoli turns up where you most expect him in Buñuel’s surreal classic, available from Criterion and FilmStruck.
The Woman in Blue (1973) - Piccoli stars as a TV personality unable to commit to being happy if it means sacrificing hope of the unexpected. Co-starring Lea Massari, in print and available on DVD.
Wedding in Blood (1973) - Piccoli and Stéphane Audran co-star in this Chabrol thriller. Never in print in the US, Region 2 PAL DVD available with English subtitles.
La Grande Bouffe (1973) - A new Bluray/DVD combo has been released by Arrow.
Life Size (1974) - Completely unavailable but worth mentioning because all press photos for this film include Piccoli interacting with an inflatable woman. Let me know if you find this one!
Le Trio Infernal (1974) - A truly gruesome thriller with Piccoli and Schneider that’s not for the faint of heart. Bizarre Sergio Leone score should make this film more appealing but watch at your own risk. Try Movie Detective
The Phantom of Liberty (1974) - Piccoli rounds out the all-star cast of Buñuel’s surreal fever dream, available from Criterion and FilmStruck
Vincent, François, Paul, and Others (1974) - Piccoli costars with Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu in this drama about a group of middle-age friends and their daily lives and dramas. Try Movie Detective
Atlantic City (1980) - Piccoli is Burt Lancaster’s silly French rival for Susan Sarandon’s affection. Available on DVD and via streaming from Vudu
A Leap in the Dark (1980) - Piccoli’s Best Actor Award at Cannes was for his performance in this film, which has never been released on home video in the US.
Strange Affair (1981) - Bizarre and uneven movie where Piccoli is a very strange man indeed. Don’t rush to watch but if you’re intrigued try Movie Detective.
Godard’s Passion (1982) - Piccoli is one of four main orbits in Godard’s experimental feature. Also starring a young Isabelle Huppert. Out of print on DVD
Une Chambre En Ville (1982) - Piccoli sings but does not dance in Jacques Demy’s all-singing film supporting starring actors Dominique Sanda and Danielle Darrieux. Available from Criterion and FilmStruck
Mauvais Sang (1986) - Hard but not impossible to find French sci-fi thriller starring Juliette Binoche with Piccoli as the villain.
May Fools (1990) - Available streaming via FilmStruck
La Belle Noiseuse (1991) - Out of print but worth the effort to track down. An unforgettable film from Jacques Rivette starring Piccoli alongside Jane Birkin and Emmanuelle Béart. Piccoli is a retired painter who is drawn back into the studio to resume work on an unfinished portrait once he meets Béart. The intense relationship that develops between artist and model may drive them both to madness; as well as the audience if you’re unprepared for a 3+ hour film that is primarily watching Piccoli paint. But if you like Rivette and meditative films in general it’s worth locating the New Yorker VHS edition online.
Traveling Companion (1996) - Asia Argento is hired to follow an aging Piccoli who may or may not be losing his mind. Out of print on DVD
Genealogies of a Crime (1997) - Overwrought crime thriller directed by Raoul Ruiz where Piccoli is once again teamed with Deneuve. Out of print on DVD
I’m Going Home (2001) - Retired actor played by Piccoli is entrusted with the care of his grandson after a family tragedy. Available on DVD
We Have a Pope (2011) - Available on DVD and streaming via Hulu for free
With Lea Massari in The Woman in Blue (1973)