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michel piccoli
(born 1925)

biography

frank capra
jean cocteau
fritz lang
alfred hitchcock
jim jarmusch
aki kaurismaki
f.w. murnau
erich von stroheim
wim wenders
orson welles
robert wiene

            michel
            piccoli

piccoli


m i c h e l   p i c c o l i :   b i o g  ]


"There is a marvellous note of the gloomy connoisseur in Piccoli."
- David Thomson


biography
michel piccoli
frank capra | jean cocteau | fritz lang
alfred hitchcock | jim jarmusch | aki kaurismaki
f.w. murnau | wim wenders | orson welles


piccoli



biography


      For several decades a leading man and character actor on both stage and screen, Michel Piccoli lends all his roles - off-beat or conventional - a welcome degree of elegance and sardonic humour

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    There is a certain irony, that Michel Piccoli would probably relish, in the fact that the films for which he is best known and most valued in England and America are those for which he was most reviled in France.

    Born in Paris in 1925, Piccoli was on the stage for ten years before taking to the movies in the mid-Forties. In a working career spanning well over 50 years he has made something like three films a year. Yet, due to the vagaries of film distribution, the dozen or so that have been seen outside France are mostly those he made during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

    This was, of course, the time of les evenements of 1968, when everyone in Paris - even actors - nailed their colours to the mast. Picolli's French audiences were surprised and then outraged at the sight of the man who had previously encapsulated all that they revered in suave, slightly foreign charm (he had played Don Juan in a long running television serial) suddenly appearing in Luis Bunuel's surreal scourges of the bourgeoisie, financing and starring in the anarchic Themroc (1973), or eating himself to death in La Grande Bouffe (1973, Blow-Out)


    Contemplating contempt

    In fact, the signs of his breaking out of the 'reasonable' mould had been there long before: witness his work for Jean-Luc Godard in Le Mepris (1963, Contempt) in which he plays a writer paid to do a re-hash of 'The Odyssey' for a megalomaniac producer. The only advice Godard gave him has since become famous:

      'Your character is like a character from Marienbad who wants to play in Rio Bravo'

    And it is some measure of Piccoli's capabilities that not only does he embody that minimal direction perfectly, he also suggests an abrasiveness and hurt quite at odds with his recognized 'image' of that time.

    Piccoli can certainly appear to be as withdrawn and insulated as the nameless participants in Resnais' L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad (1961, Last Year in Marienbad), but it clearly does not spring grom any emotional indifference. As Contempt demonstrated, his awareness of the social pressures bearing down on him, theprostitution of his talents and his wife's contempt for him are almost too strong to allow his character any impassioned response. Yet it was Piccoli's urbanity that continued to appeal to his countrymen. Les Choses de la Vie (1970, The Things of Life) is a typical example of the middle-of-the-road commercial ventures in which Piccoli involved himself too often to enable his homeground audiences to appreciate his more outlandish talents. The Things of Life gave him the role of another comfortable, suave womanizer, yet there are still moments that he made his own: a finicky taste in shirts - they had to be a certain shade of blue, a certain cut of collar - betrayed an appealing fastidiousness, a quality that film critic David Thomson pinned down with:

      'There is a marvellous note of the gloomy connoisseur in Piccoli'.

    It markedly resurfaces, albeit in different mood, in Blow Out when he expands at length on the wonders of rubber gloves!

    Indeed, Blow Out might be regarded as the pivot of his career, the moment when he finally alienated his French audience and appeared to the rest of the world as 'himself': scabrous but charming, immersed in - but subtly distanced from - the outrages of his surroundings. A man who could regard with perfect equanimity both the surreal fetishism of those rubber gloves and the proposition of eating himself to death,


    Having their cake and eating it

    Blow Out is in many ways a mirror image of Bunuel's El Angel Exterminador (1962, The Exterminating Angel), where a party of house guests find themselves locked in a room without anything to eat. In Blow Out the director Marco Ferreri inverts Bunuel's world into a crueller version in which four men willingly withdraw from everyday life and commit group suicide in an orgy of gluttony. Whether continuing his ballet practice, flexing himself sedately at the wall bars or finally exploding on the verandah, Piccoli continues to convey the same slightly removed intelluality that is perfectly suited to Ferreri's brand of Surrealism. By keeping his sceptical distance he also invites the audience to view the bizarre nature of ordinary objects or the cruelty of human appetites.

    It is this quality that so enhances Ferreri's earlier Dillinger e Morto (1969, Dillinger Is Dead). Cinematically, the film achieves a tranquil perfection in terms of formal composition, but it is Piccoli's quiet concentration that makes it one of the most purely reflective films ever made. He roams the house, alone and silent; whether caressing the images that a projector throws on a wall, making a salad or dismantling an old revolver, he judges to perfection the distance between the spiritual needs of humans and the oppressive weight of the world of objects.

    Similarly, the achievement of a man taking apart his life and striking out for freedom reaches a peak of anarchic enthusiasm in Themroc, a film financed by Piccoli and in which he unusually appears as a fully paid-up member of the working class. Throwing over his oppressive family and job, he reverts to a state of nature - knocking down the walls of his flat, sleeping with his sister and eating policeman. The cry of anger from this modern caveman revealed a rare side of Piccoli; a sheer physicality rarely glimpsed since.


    Semi-detached

    Given his usual air of detachment, it is perhaps strange that he has not worked more with Claude Chabrol, the most sardonic observer of the French bourgeoisie, His role in Les Noces Rouges (1973, Red Wedding) personified the small-town urges of the petit bourgeois, but the best-remembered sequence - his seduction of Stephane Audran in the local museum - has distinct overtones of Surrealism.

    It is the sort of touch that Bunuel has made his own and which certainly underlines Piccoli's presence in both Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (1972, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and La Fantome de la liberte (1974, The Phantom of Liberty). Indeed, Bunuel's famous three-quarter-length shots seem ideally suited to capture Piccoli's talents: the imposing physical presence, broad chest, thick neck and leonine head can all be contained in the frame. The emotional intimacy of the close-up is rarely demanded, and the characters' ironic detachment underlines the bizarre aspects of any surrounding world.




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biography
michel piccoli
frank capra | jean cocteau | fritz lang
alfred hitchcock | jim jarmusch | aki kaurismaki
f.w. murnau | wim wenders | orson welles

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