Michel Piccoli

May 10, 2008 at 2:47 am

At the French Cinematheque the other night, at the opening of Humbert Balsan’s retrospective, director Serge Toubiana (who writes an interesting French language cinema blog) called to the scene Michel Piccoli, to say a few words about Balsan. For me this was an unexpected appearance. I was thrilled to see the actor in person. He is now an old man, in his 80s, and if I passed him on the street I probably would have never recognized the man that I know from so many films.

A real titan indeed. His filmography includes more than 200 titles, and he still takes on roles. Showing to students a clip from Godard’s Contempt in an introductory cinema class (the moment in the screening room, with Fritz Lang and Jack Palance), lets me encounter the young Piccoli at least once a year. In my mind, however, Piccoli is engraved rather with his powerful presence bordering on a madman, full of sexual intensity. At least, this is how I have come to think of him from his best performances in films by Bunuel (Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour), Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe), and in lesser-seen gems (Francis Girod’s L’etat sauvage, Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home). Piccoli is certainly a perfect candidate for the title of a cult actor!

Late one night last month I came across a film with Piccoli on one of the French TV channels. It was clearly something from the 1970s, judging by the visual style. A truly engaging viewing, one could not get away, a film that had no talk, the characters were only making sounds and yet communicating perfectly and everything was clear. Piccoli, the protagonist, was a working class man who goes mad and rebels against society, sexually and morally. He goes on a self-styled strike, a sort of siege of his semi-destroyed apartment. Some neighbors are outraged but some like it and join in; the police (shown as stupid and corrupt) cannot do much to get him out of the barricaded room; it is all resolved at the end with the arrival of a lovable mason, played by Patrick Deawaere, who puts everybody at peace with his friendly whistling. It took me quite a bit of time to search the next day to find out which is the film, but I finally identified it as Themroc, directed by Claude Faraldo, a film that seems to be available only in the UK on a very limited basis for the time being (so buy it). It is a potential cult classic that has been shot simultaneously or just before the making of La Grande Bouffe, a film that fully unleashes Piccoli’s dark manly force.

Piccoli today. He looks pretty much like this in Manoel de Oliveira’s short at Chacun son cinéma. There he plays Nikita Khrushchev!

© Dina Iordanova
10 May 2008