…And God Created Jean-Louis: Trintignant at Film Forum
Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Claire E. Peters1
Bernardo Bertolucci chose Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Marcello Clerici in the hit 1970 film “The Conformist” without even having the actor do a screen test. In an interview for “Sight & Sound,” Bertolucci said, “I chose Trintignant because when I think of him, two adjectives immediately come to mind: moving and sinister. These are the qualities of the character. The point of departure is reality, and the actor transcends it.” Trintignant himself agreed, saying, “I’ve never had a role for which I was asked so much, so many things which I have inside, but that I hide.” Fans of the legendary French actor, who just turned eighty-two, currently have the opportunity to see him on the big screen—in roles both famous and less well known—in a career-spanning retrospective running through Thursday, December 20 at Film Forum.
With his soulful eyes and smooth brow, Trintignant was as distinctively handsome as other Gallic heartthrobs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, such as Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. In his early films, he was clearly being groomed for leading-man status. In Roger Vadim’s “…And God Created Woman” (1956), he plays Michel, the quiet and naïve admirer (and then husband) of the fecund, feline, and feral Juliette (Brigitte Bardot). In “Violent Summer” (1959), he is at his most handsome, playing the sunkissed son of a Fascist official who falls in love with a widow at least ten years his senior. In Dino Risi’s “Il sorpasso” (1962), he plays a shy law student who gets swept up in the misadventures of a coarse but charming galoot. All three of these films have an outsized, overheated quality about them, for which Trintignant seems at first to be a cooling, Plutonian ballast. When his characters lose that cool, however, everything blows apart (or, as in Alain Cavalier’s “Le combat dans l’Île” (1962), a bazooka comes out of the closet).
On screen, other characters within his orbit tend to expose themselves, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness, as they attempt to have an effect on this seemingly affectless man. For example, in Eric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), ravishing divorcée Maud (Françoise Fabian) attempts to create a dialectical interaction with the priggish Jean-Louis (Trintignant). Throughout their conversation, Maud reveals personal details about her childhood, her failed marriage, and her former lovers; she’s trying to break ground for Jean-Louis, hoping that he’ll feel comfortable enough to reveal himself if she takes the lead. Jean-Louis reveals comparatively little, however, and Maud is left dissatisfied in every sense of the word. Christos Sartzetakis, the stone-faced magistrate Trintignant plays in Costa-Gavras’s “Z” (1969), for which Trintignant won the best actor prize at Cannes in 1969, has a similar effect on those around him. The officials who have conspired to carry out the assassination at the heart of the film become wildly indignant at repetition of the simple query, “Nom, prénom, profession.” Their guilt is evident from the revelations of Sartzetakis’s investigation, but their unmitigated hubris is exposed by their fiery responses to his phlegmatic interrogation.
From the early ‘60s to the late ‘70s, Trintignant seemed to be the go-to man for the portrayal of complex anti-heroes. What makes his anti-heroes so interesting, though, is that they are anti-heroic not in the sense that they are truly evil, but because they are duplicitous, cunning, and riddled with neuroses. The Sphinx-like glare for which the actor is so well known is frequently used to mask a character’s simmering existential dread. Trintignant’s characters are afraid of being unmasked, and they are often willing to sacrifice anything (true love in “Violent Summer,” the lives of loyal friends in “The Conformist”) to maintain an artfully constructed masquerade. While the actor comes off as modest and unassuming, his placidity belies a smoldering intensity. Sergio Corbucci makes excellent use of this feature in “The Great Silence” (1968), a spaghetti western in which Trintignant plays the titular hero, a mute gunslinger seeking revenge against bounty hunters in Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899.
Trintignant was magnetic, particularly to women, both on screen and off. Like Michel in “…And God Created Woman,” he appears even-tempered and, at a modest 5’8”, relatively harmless. But it was he who turned Brigitte Bardot’s head away from director Roger Vadim, her husband at the time. The affair was an international scandal to the film-going public, and broke up Bardot’s and Trintignant’s marriages. Trintignant and his ex-wife Stéphane Audran would reunite in Claude Chabrol’s “Les Biches” (1968), in which he plays an elegant cad who imposes himself upon an ambiguously Sapphic relationship between two women.
Film Forum’s retrospective also features some selections from Trintignant’s forays into lighter fare. He plays a relatively uncomplicated love object to Anouk Aimeé in Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman” (1966). The film was an international success that propelled Trintignant to superstar status. Rather than continue to capitalize on his newfound success as a romantic lead, however, he chose to dabble in the absurd as the star of two films by Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Trans-Europ-Express” (1966) and “The Man Who Lies” (1968). Viewers seeking a linear plot and concrete characters might not enjoy these very much (such viewers ought to know to avoid Robbe-Grillet altogether), but fans of the director and the actor shouldn’t miss a rare opportunity to see these films on the big screen. Jacques Deray’s “The Outside Man” (1972) and René Clément’s “And Hope to Die” (1972) are gritty crime dramas about mistaken identities and deals gone sour. The former is a bit of an oddity, with Trintignant looking cool, as usual, but as out of place as a Martian (albeit a chic one) next to a very bronze Ann-Margret in sunburned, burnt-out Los Angeles. The latter is a mystery to me—I was unable to find a copy of the film anywhere. See it while you can.
From the late ‘90s to the present, Trintignant has appeared on screen infrequently, preferring instead to lend his abilities to the stage. Upon reaching middle age, Trintignant began playing a different type of character. Maud’s plush blankets and the marbled offices of Fascist headquarters in “The Conformist” gave way to the paper-strewn home office of the retired judge in Krzystof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Red” (1994), and the fetid hotel rooms of the limping crook in “See How They Fall” (1994). In “Three Colors: Red,” as well as André Téchiné’s “Rendez-vous” (1985) and François Truffaut’s “Confidentially Yours” (1983), he plays dignified professional men, haunted by failure and loss, who find respite in the company (platonic in the first two cases, professional and then romantic in the third) of a beautiful, charismatic younger woman. Trintignant is able to achieve the rather difficult feat of conveying a combination of paternal and romantic love, as well as the pain that can result from it, without coming across as predatory or unwholesome. When Paulot, a jealous, would-be suitor in “Rendez-vous,” berates Trintignant’s character for what he mistakenly assumes to be romantic overtures toward his roommate Nina (a very young Juliette Binoche), the viewer’s sympathy lies entirely with the older man. Trintignant exudes such an innate gentility and charm that I, not normally a fan of “autumn and spring” couplings, longed to see the characters played by the older Trintignant find happy endings with their younger female companions in these later films.
The retrospective leads into the premiere of Trintignant’s first film in fourteen years, Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012). In yet another role that was written especially for him, Trintignant plays a retired music teacher who is trying to care for his ailing wife. David Thomson of “The New Republic” calls “Amour,” “the most complete attempt at a film this year,” and says, “the love it observes is intense, selfish, and nearly insane.” This is territory Trintignant has trod in the past, but perhaps not in quite the same way; in “Amour,” Trintignant’s personal experiences of true love and tragic loss seem to be just behind his eyes. Although his physical beauty and strength may have deteriorated over the years, his ability to convey immeasurable depth of feeling with just a look has not.