“There are musicians who practice all the time but we actors are not able to do that. We don't have an instrument, except if you say we are our own instrument, and yet I always try to continue searching and working for the moment where you have to deliver.” - Michel Piccoli.
Like his countryman Alain Delon, although a very different acting animal, Michel Piccoli has worked with many of the great auteurs of European cinema; Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Luis Bunuel, Jacques Rivette, Claude Sautet, Otar Iosseliani, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, and those are only the ones I can think of. And not only has he worked with the best, but Piccoli has also appeared in several masterpieces, my favourite of which must be Godard's Le Mepris, where Piccoli plays a hack writer, who spends most of the film trying to keep hold of his wife, played by the beautiful Brigitte Bardot. He fumbles around after her, trying to satisfy her needs which are apparently incomprehensible to him, but we see Piccoli really trying, desperately trying, we see it in his face, it's the sad sight of a strong man brought low, until he does eventually lose her, tragically, to his own paymaster, played by Jack Palance.
Piccoli is a real lion of an actor, he's physically strong, and possesses a personality of force, along with an easy vocal power. But there is also a delicacy about him, a grace, he's self-conscious, he is generous and humble. He is mentally tough too, a rigorous thinker, which gives his strength a vulnerable quality, all of which adds up to a provocative and compelling acting whole. It has even been said that Piccoli is the perfect split between the physical and the intellectual, and I'd go along with that.
I began to understand the nature of Piccoli's talent better, after I read an interview with him in Cahiers Du Cinema, where he expressed his admiration for the work of Louis Jouvet, describing him as having “a kind of discreet madness”. I thought this an apt description for Piccoli himself. The “discreet” is the intellectual, graceful side of Piccoli, stiff upper lipped and impassive. In this mode, Piccoli's work is pared down, allowing the audience to project their own imagination onto him, and therefore vicariously experience the character's trials and tribulations. This is the Piccoli of self-control, enabling him to play the white collar gangster, Nuttheccio, in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos, or an old woman (yes, an old woman) in Otar Iosseliani's Gardens In Autumn, or a great painter in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse. And yet, even here, beneath Piccoli's intelligence and civilised mannner, there is the “madness” too. And we sense it, even when it is not brought forth directly, as in Claude Chabrol's Les Noces Rouges, where Piccoli plays the Deputy Mayor, he seems somehow savage when cherishing Stephane Audran during their illicit love affair. But Piccoli only ever offers us brief glimpses of this madness, but when it comes it's shocking, fierce, and decisive, and tends to manifest itself in sudden outbursts. In Claude Sautet's Les Choses de la Vie, Piccoli's vicious berating of the architect who messes up his plans is intense but it apparently comes from nowhere and is over in a moment, it's effect however, is total. There are other moments too, in the aforementioned Le Mepris, where we see Bardot flinch when faced with the chaos of Piccoli's temper. Ultimately though, this madness is always present in Piccoli's work, even if it's usually only latent, shadowing his essentially classy nature.
Michel Piccoli is one of the greatest actors there has ever been. His body of work is immense (which includes a substantial amount of theatre work, infact, the first 10 years or so of Piccoli's career were spent upon the stage, learning his trade, sadly I have never seen him live), and I can only look upon it with awe. The qualities he embodies as a man, and therefore brings to his work, are a lesson for any actor. He also thinks deeply about his work, in this sense then, he is a philosopher of acting, aswell as an artist.
I fear Michel Piccoli is little known here in United Kingdom, if you don't know his work, I urge you to watch his films, any of the films mentioned here would be a good place to start*, try them, and experience, for yourself, the discreet madness of Michel Piccoli.
* and I have hardly mentioned his substantial work with Luis Bunuel, for whom Piccoli was an important collaborator