The dichotomy of French actors in the talkie era was defined in the ’30s by Jean Gabin and Michel Simon: the minimal and the maximal, Apollonian and the Dionysian. In the Romantic crest of the New Wave, many took up Simon’s Dionysian mode—Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Paul Belmondo—but none embodied the Apollonian tradition so perfectly as the huddled, secretive Jean-Louis Trintignant, subject of a 19-film retrospective at Film Forum, which precedes its run of Michael Haneke’s Amour, Trintignant’s first major role in 14 years.
There is nothing extravagant about Trintignant. He is on the shortish side of medium height, with stooped shoulders and long, expressive hands that have a habit of wandering off, as if independent of their owner’s scrupulous self-regulation. He is handsome but not strikingly so, with light brown hair and a thick, broad, flat mouth whose corners slightly turn down in repose but sometimes resolve into a sharp, wolfish smile.
In Dino Risi’s wonderfully humane 1962 comedy Il Sorpasso, Trintignant appears as a conventional law student, which is, in fact, what he was before discovering theater. His screen breakthrough was Roger Vadim’s 1956 And God Created Woman, in which he played the shy, diffident middle son, Michel, in a family of Saint-Tropez shipyard owners, forced to wear the horns of a cuckold by Brigitte Bardot in heat. The film made him a star, as much for his affair with Bardot (then Vadim’s wife) as for his performance. After a three-year stint in the French army—including service in Algeria that stirred his political conscience—Trintignant returned to France for the cresting of the New Wave and would become the favorite actor of Franco-Italian cinema during a fecund harvest season.
At the heart of any Trintignant performance is a proud reserve—shy or furtive. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), which lays its scene in fascist-era Italy, Trintignant has the title role, a pin-neat monster of repression with a carnivorous laugh and razor creases on his trousers, even counting off the precise cadence of his gait when trotting across the vast public spaces of Mussolini-era architecture. In Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), Trintignant’s reserve is a Christian wariness of temptation, both noble and slightly ridiculous—the film’s signature image is him bunched up in bed, swaddled in a blanket, defending himself from the sexy divorcée (Françoise Fabian) sleeping au naturale next to him. In Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), Trintignant plays the indefatigable prosecutor ferreting out the right-wing thugs who have assassinated Yves Montand’s pro-peace politician, his smoked lenses making him the image of blind justice.
Such High Sixties art house classics share a bill with Trintignant’s genre excursions. Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968) greatly exercises Trintignant’s capacity for commanding pregnant pauses as a mute gunslinger, while Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man (1972)—a fine title for this retrospective—has Trintignant as a French hit man operating in a Los Angeles almost as strange as a moon colony. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1967) gives such fare a parodic deconstruction, to mixed results, with a film crew on a train improvising and revising a spicy thriller that is played out as they do by Trintignant, a drug mule with a weakness for s/m. (Robbe-Grillet’s fellow nouveau roman practitioner Marguerite Duras would do one better on this conceit in her 1977 Le Camion.)
Trintignant’s performances grew increasingly scarce over time; he is in excellent form as the theater director in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985), opposite a very young Juliette Binoche and Wadeck Stanczak, in an uptight role that Trintignant might have been offered as a younger man. Here, Trintignant delivers a bit of direction he might have written himself: “You’ve got to act love as if it were hate.” Certainly the two are inextricable in Amour, an immaculate vacuum of a film in which octogenarian Trintignant is nevertheless enormously moving as a man clinging to his ailing wife, incapable of cutting off their lifelong conversation. And it is wonderful indeed to hear from Trintignant once more, in any circumstances.