Michel Piccoli, who has died at the age of 94, was one of the last great European actors of his generation. A character-actor and an everyman rather than a movie-star, Piccoli nevertheless displayed remarkable presence as a lead man and worked with many of the greatest directors of his time, from Godard to Carax.
Piccoli was born in 1925, in Paris, between the world wars, and his career began as an extra in 1945. These were the years of small roles, and of work principally undertaken in the theatre. These were also years, looking a little outside of Piccoli’s life, when the idea of a united Europe was beginning to crystallize; as the young actor took more small or secondary roles, the treaties of Paris in 1951 and of Rome in 1957 contributed to create the European Economic Community. This is important, because from the moment that Piccoli’s career began, it opened itself out to the great European directors whose work was able to flourish in the post-war. In this respect, his body of work bears comparison with an actor like Marcello Mastroianni, a contemporary, who similarly flitted between countries. Mastroianni, after making a name for himself in Italian cinema, would work with European directors such as Lina Wertmüller, Theo Angelopoulos, Nadine Trintignant, and Manoel De Oliveira. Piccoli’s career was remarkably similar: Angelopoulos and De Oliveira figure in it too, and he would work with Mastroianni on French-Italian films by the Italian director Marco Ferreri, most famously La grande bouffe (1973), a dark and obscene farce in which four friends decide to eat to the death. Alongside this international work, like Mastroianni, he cultivated a career in his home country that accumulated the best directors of his time, including Resnais, Rivette, Sautet, Varda, and Chabrol.
This taste for the European matters, and feels particular to a certain period of world cinema, especially now that certain countries of the European Union are turning in on themselves, and a sense of nationalism is in the air. Piccoli, a staunch leftist all his life, a political activist, and a man forever marked by the horrors of the Second World War, would wear his politics on his sleeve. He was an early member after the war of the Mouvement de la Paix, a pacifist organization whose aims were laid out by the Resistance fighter Raymond Aubrac. He worked with many politicized directors, such as the Greek Costa-Gavras, in Shock Troops (1967), a film centering on a group of resistance fighters battling Nazis. In fact, a lot of Piccoli’s career was spent needling away at his idea of the bourgeoisie—at the laziness and complacency of the rich middle-classes, too distracted by their little dramas to notice the world around them. This is particularly the case in Piccoli’s work with Buñuel, such as Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), or in Ferreri’s La grande bouffe, where Piccoli commits suicide in an immense, repulsive orgy intended to denounce modern consumerism.
Piccoli’s career is therefore impossible to divorce from the idea of a liberated Europe—a Europe of resistance. The Cannes Film Festival—roughly contemporaneous with Piccoli’s career, born as a response to the fascism that had tainted Venice and Berlin film festivals—would foster exactly the sort of cinema that he stood for. He was an active member of SOS Racism, petitioned world leaders, gave his support to the political left in France. This aspect of his life endured right up to his last great role, in We Have a Pope (2011), by Nanni Moretti. Moretti—similarly a scourge of the rightwing in Italy, the most vocal opponent in cinema to Berlusconi’s machinations—which gave Piccoli (a lifelong committed atheist) the role of a conflicted Pope who goes AWOL, tormented by the weight of his responsibility. It isn’t too hard to see in the film, rather than a simple denunciation of the church, a political parable.
Other actors coming up at the same time as Piccoli, or a little after him—actors such as Jean-Louis Trintigant, Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Huppert, great European actors all—had similarly varied, outward-looking careers that flitted from country to country. But with Piccoli’s death, a link to a whole other world of European cinema has now gone.
This career—that endurance—is made all the more remarkable for the fact that Piccoli could never be said to be a movie star, like Mastroianni was. On the contrary, Piccoli seemed to play on an everyman persona a lot of the time; he was bluff, plausible, occasionally suave, but he wasn’t sexy, didn’t play on a register of seduction. The role that finally introduced him, after years of bit parts—a small but crucial role in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le doulos (1962), is a case in point. Opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo, playing an endlessly sensual and Americanized version of a modern gangster, Piccoli plays Nutheccio, a more old-school French crime lord. Nutheccio is given one great scene towards the end of the film, where he realizes his game is up, that Piccoli imbues with a quite startling sort of Zen melancholy. He is elegant and doomed; you sense, still dormant within him, how threatening and powerful he has been, and how all this is now as nothing in the face of his defeat. Belmondo has star power, his character has energy purpose, whereas Piccoli, here, is just some guy.
Like Belmondo, Piccoli went on to work with Godard, in perhaps his (Piccoli’s) greatest film, Contempt (1963). Here again, Piccoli’s looks and persona are contrasted with the incendiary aura of a film star: Brigitte Bardot at the height of her fame and beauty. There is a terseness and cruelty to Piccoli in the film, yet as ever his face is wide-open and likable, incurring the audience’s ready sympathy. Again, Piccoli’s masculinity is evident, but somehow not hard-edged or aggressive. All of this suits Godard’s story of a seesawing couple very well, helping him to create a portrayal of dysfunction.
This persona of Piccoli’s returns throughout his career, helping him to play in service of normality, right up to Carax’s Mauvais sang (1986): this contrasts with contemporaries like Yves Montand, who was always more noble, or Jean-Louis Trintignant, a seductive intellectual. In later years, Piccoli became perhaps a little more commanding, his years of experience giving him extra stature—in films such as Ridicule (1996) or Nothing About Robert (1999), for instance, he plays a seigneurial sort of figure who lords it over a younger man. But even then there is always a kind of warm humanity at play, a welcoming presence.
In his last great hurrah, as the Pope in Moretti’s We Have a Pope—a role which won him a David Di Donatello award in Italy—Piccoli shows all his humanity, his vulnerability too. This man, elected to the highest office in the church against his will, who deserts his function and goes wandering around Rome, has to come across to the audience as somebody just like us. We feel the itch of his predicament, the horror of his incapability. Moretti, who has always talked in his work about the weight of our responsibility to each other, gives us somebody totally incapacitated by the sense of his inadequacy. Piccoli is the perfect guy for the job, because by now, in the winter of his career like all popes, he has been around long enough; he has put in the work, seen others fall by the wayside; he was there with them as they shone brightly; he’s sturdy and clubbable. But remember: he was never a star. And so it takes the charisma, the gravitas of this great man to play a not-quite guy, the man not intended for great things; the diligent worker, magnificently fleeing from his one big shot.