The opening credits of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1963) list seventeen cast members, most of them now long-forgotten, before concluding with “and Michel Piccoli” — then, as now, an indication of status, signifying supporting work by someone gifted and/or famous enough to be a lead. It’s the earliest title screening in Film Forum’s weeklong Piccoli retrospective (March 16–22), but the actor had been working steadily for well over a decade by then, and Melville knew perfectly well what he had. Piccoli gets one big scene in the movie, opposite star Jean-Paul Belmondo; he plays a man who’s aware that he’s almost certainly about to be killed, but who also clearly knows that begging for his life would accomplish nothing. Instead, this low-rent crook visibly struggles to maintain his composure, as if ignoring the gun pointed at him will somehow prevent its being fired. It’s an indelible portrait of quiet desperation subtly escalating into barely controlled panic, achieved via a series of minutely detailed glances and gulps. Piccoli takes a character who barely figures in the narrative and makes him unforgettable, in just a few riveting minutes.
Such was his peculiar alchemy. (Though still with us at 92, he appears to have finally retired a few years ago, after seven decades in the business; Film Forum’s retro includes work as recent as 2011’s We Have a Pope, in which he plays the title role.) It’s surprisingly hard to think of an American equivalent for Piccoli. He never exudes the wised-up, electrifying charisma of a Humphrey Bogart or a Robert Mitchum but is still capable of commanding the screen without seeming to do much of anything. Perhaps Gene Hackman is the closest analogue, though even Hackman tends to be showier than Piccoli ever gets. The performances showcased here — just seventeen, selected from the two-hundred-plus films in which he’s appeared — tend to be those in which he wholeheartedly trusts the material, embodying his character as simply and unfussily as possible. Very occasional outbursts of temper or passion only emphasize the general stillness. Most great actors compel you to watch them act, hoping they’ll thrill you. Piccoli merely invites you to witness him be.
That’s especially clear in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), which vaulted Piccoli onto the Gallic A-list just a few months after Le Doulos premiered. Piccoli’s character, a screenwriter named Paul, spends much of the film engaged in a protracted, constantly shifting emotional tug-of-war with his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot); watching Piccoli casually deflect, reproach, and undermine, without ever seeming to elevate his pulse rate, is impressively maddening to behold. He’s confident enough, too, not to oversell the act that sets the conflict in motion: Paul encouraging Camille to take a ride — in a sports car that only seats two — with the Hollywood producer (Jack Palance) who’s offering him a cushy job. Bardot’s discomfort conveys everything of importance, and Piccoli disguises Paul’s grotesque opportunism carefully enough to give him plausible deniability throughout. Godard is also one of the few directors to perceive Piccoli as a potential sex symbol, not only casting him opposite Bardot but dressing (and undressing) him with a lascivious eye. Paul even compares himself to Dean Martin in Some Came Running, wearing a fedora while sitting in the bathtub. For the Nouvelle Vague directors, that’s equivalent to a regular guy looking into the mirror and seeing ’77 Han Solo.
Piccoli worked with many of the great European filmmakers over the course of his long career, and Film Forum’s retro includes multiple films by several major names. Godard cast him again nearly twenty years later in Passion (1982), though the director was largely uninterested in actors by that point; seen today, Piccoli’s inconsequential turn as a factory owner is overshadowed by early work from the young Isabelle Huppert. Jacques Demy found room for Piccoli among the ensemble of two musicals, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and Une Chambre en Ville (1982), though his singing voice is dubbed in both cases (along with that of almost everyone else onscreen). Neither is essential Piccoli, by any means, but Rochefort in particular is such a delight that any opportunity to see it with an appreciative audience should be grabbed. Three films by the perpetually underrated Claude Sautet — Les Choses de la Vie (1970); Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971); and Vincent, François, Paul, and the Others (1974) — are screened so rarely that they should be considered a high priority for cinephiles. Oddly, Luis Buñuel is represented here only by Piccoli’s atypically broad performance as a perpetually horny patriarch in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), though he also appeared in such classic titles as Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty. Of course, there’s no law preventing one from supplementing this West Houston Street assortment with a Filmstruck subscription.
Those with limited time or resources should seek out the most immersive Piccoli experiences. Marco Ferreri’s experimental Dillinger Is Dead (1969) is practically a one-man show, featuring the actor as a vaguely disaffected businessman who stays up all night cooking himself a gourmet meal and watching old home movies in his living room. Ferreri introduces the threat of violence early on — the businessman finds an ancient pistol wrapped in old newspaper, and kills some additional time disassembling and cleaning it — but devotes the vast majority of the film’s running time to simply observing this middle-aged man puttering around his house in the middle of the night, occasionally looking in on his sleeping wife and getting frisky with their live-in maid. The prolonged emphasis on mundane domestic activity, suffused with uncertain tension, anticipates Chantal Akerman’s revolutionary Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, while home-movie sequences showing footage from a vacation to Spain share a hallucinatory wooziness with key sections of Easy Rider, which came out the same year. As ever, Piccoli feels no obligation to signal his character’s roiling emotions, allowing the attentive viewer to intuit them from his uninflected behavior. It’s a minimalist tour de force. (Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, made four years later, also screens, though it’s an unpleasant experience — the plot involves four men literally eating themselves to death — that’s recommended only to those who want to see Piccoli simulate one of the most disgusting deaths in cinema history.)
Equally remarkable is Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), a four-hour epic consisting largely of real-time sessions between a semi-retired painter (Piccoli, by then in his mid-sixties) and the young woman (Emmanuelle Béart) he impulsively asks to model for him. Contempt famously opens with Bardot lounging naked on a bed (a scene that Godard was forced to add by his American co-producers), making it difficult for some viewers to even notice Piccoli in the background. Here, he spends much of the movie opposite a completely nude Béart, yet never makes any effort to call attention to himself. Like Contempt, La Belle Noiseuse is a sustained power struggle, albeit artistic rather than romantic; the painter brusquely bends the model into various pretzel-inspired poses, treating her like an object whose personal needs are an imposition, while she struggles first to accept unaccustomed passivity and then to impose her own will upon the project. Both actors are magnificent, and it’s a testament to their skill that the omnipresent one-sided nudity eventually seems irrelevant, even as it continues to underscore an inherently unbalanced professional relationship. Close-ups of the artist’s hands at work (frequently playing uninterrupted for several minutes at a time) employ a real painter, but Piccoli convincingly suggests the same talent in wider shots. More crucially, he captures an artist’s monomaniacal temperament, without ever breaking a sweat.
And then there’s I’m Going Home (2001), which plays like a swan song for both Piccoli and its director, Manoel de Oliveira, even though both would continue working for more than a decade afterward. (Oliveira died three years ago at the age of 106, having made his final film at 104.) Somehow, its portrait of an elderly theater actor’s misfortunes — losing most of his family in a car accident; accepting a role in an embarrassingly awful adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (its officious auteur played by John Malkovich, for added cruelty); no longer being able to consistently remember his lines — is perceived by many as life-affirming, though the film could only be more explicitly about encroaching death had Piccoli feigned a ninety-minute heart attack. What these delusional viewers are likely responding to is the actor’s own vitality, still unmistakable even as he approached octogenarian status. The movie’s blatant defeatism seemed absurd, and hence was ignored. Get real: How could such a quietly robust screen presence ever cease to exist? So far, he hasn’t — and even when he inevitably does, these indelible performances will surely endure.
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.