Jean-Louis Trintignant, French actor of powerful reserve, dies at 91

Placeholder while article actions load

Jean-Louis Trintignant, a French actor of understated magnetism who achieved international renown in the 1960s and 1970s playing an amorous racecar driver in “A Man and a Woman,” an enigmatic prosecutor in “Z” and a closeted gay fascist assassin in “The Conformist,” died June 17 at his home in the Gard region of southern France. He was 91.

His wife, Marianne, confirmed his death to Agence France-Presse but did not provide a cause. In 2017, he revealed a cancer diagnosis.

In a career spanning seven decades and more than 130 films, Mr. Trintignant was regarded as one of the most accomplished, if reluctant, European movie stars of his generation. He was private, restless and fearful of repeating himself in his work, and sometimes threatened to withdraw entirely from show business.

His reputation rests on a handful of commercial successes and art-house favorites: filmmaker Claude Lelouch’s deliriously stylized “A Man and a Woman” (1966), Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-winning political thriller “Z” (1969), Éric Rohmer’s cerebral and sexy romantic drama “My Night at Maud’s” (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s unsettling “The Conformist” (1970).

At 82, Mr. Trintignant came out of a 15-year retirement to give a masterly performance as a cultured Parisian caring for his incapacitated wife in “Amour” (2012), which garnered the Oscar for best foreign-language film as well as the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a signature Trintignant turn, featuring a character whose intellect and emotional reserve conceal an inner torment.

“The best actors in the world,” he once said, “are those who feel the most and show the least.”

The aimless son of a prosperous industrialist, he said he began acting merely as a way to overcome his shyness on the road to becoming a director. In his early filmography, the unimposing 5-foot-8 Mr. Trintignant was often typecast as a timid, innocent, powerless person facing forces he did not understand or control.

He came to moviegoers’ attention in Roger Vadim’s “And God Created Woman” (1956), a showcase for Brigitte Bardot’s freewheeling sexuality. He played her solemn husband, who watches his virile brother win her attention. Off-screen, the two co-stars embarked on a torrid affair that ended both their marriages, Bardot’s to Vadim and Mr. Trintignant’s to actress Stéphane Audran.

A run of milquetoast parts followed — the standouts of which were his roles in “The Easy Life” (1962) and “The Success” (1963), Italian-made comedies in which Mr. Trintignant’s mild, rigidly moralistic persona contrasted with the boisterous charisma of Vittorio Gassman. The films were critical and popular hits that vaulted Mr. Trintignant to the front rank of European cinema.

As a film presence, he carried none of the overt sexual mystique of other French stars of the era — the roguishness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the prettiness of Alain Delon, the world-weariness of Yves Montand. Mr. Trintignant’s trademark was a superficial, pleasant ordinariness that masked depths of strength or despair.

“He emphasized his averageness, turned his lack of apparent definition into a weird kind of strength,” film critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in the New York Times. “In movie after movie he presents himself as a man so unremarkable that you have to wonder if anything at all is going on underneath that opaque surface. And then slowly, painstakingly, he unwraps the package and shows you what’s inside. He always seems cautious and watchful, waiting for the moment when he can (or must) reveal himself.”

He cemented his popularity in “A Man and a Woman,” co-starring with Anouk Aimée as star-crossed widowed lovers. They commence a nearly wordless affair against the backdrop of sunset beach strolls and conversations shot through mist-soaked windshields.

The drama, with an instantly canonized samba score by Francis Lai, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film and was a box-office sensation. Mr. Trintignant, an amateur racecar driver and the nephew of two-time Monaco Grand Prix winner Maurice Trintignant, did his own racing on-screen.

In “Z,” Mr. Trintignant was a seemingly detached and colorless prosecutor conducting an official probe into the military-ordered killing of an opposition leader. His horn-rimmed glasses, well-worn suit and cipher-like personality suggest a bureaucrat going through the motions, but his unyielding resolve and political savvy gradually emerge.

The movie won the Oscar for best-foreign language film, and Mr. Trintignant’s performance earned him the Cannes Film Festival award for best actor. “He suited me very well,” the actor recalled of the character, “someone very subdued, very timid, but who knows exactly what he wants, and I’m a little like him; in the end, through sheer obstinacy, I always get what I want.”

In “The Conformist,” he played a sexually confused political opportunist in 1930s Italy who finds succor in fascism and agrees to become an assassin for the Mussolini regime.

Mr. Trintignant later wrote in his memoirs that his mother and his infant daughter, Pauline, died during filming. “Maybe it’s horrible to say this,” he observed, “but in such moments, the sensibility becomes extraordinarily sharp. And Bertolucci, who was very close to me, made use of my grief.”

New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael commended Mr. Trintignant for “an almost incredible intuitive understanding of screen presence; his face is never too full of emotion, never completely empty.” Comparing him to Humphrey Bogart, Kael added, “He has the grinning, teeth-baring reflexes of Bogart — cynicism and hu­mor erupt in savagery.”

Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant was born in Piolenc, a village in southern France, on Dec. 11, 1930, and grew up in nearby Pont-Saint-Esprit and Aix-en-Provence. Rebelling against his parents’ wishes, he dropped out of law school and soon began acting in Paris. He won good reviews for his stage work in demanding parts such as Hamlet while embarking on a hectic film career.

He appeared in experimental films directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, better known for his avant-garde literature. Mr. Trintignant was also Simone Signoret’s young lover in “The Sleeping Car Murders” (1965), Costa-Gavras’s acclaimed directing debut, and played a tightly wound Catholic undone by a chaste encounter with a divorcée in “My Night at Maud’s.”

He portrayed an aloof playboy in a menage a trois with two lesbians in “The Does” (1968), a moody psychodrama set in Saint-Tropez, France. One of the women was played by Audran, who was then married to the film’s director, Claude Chabrol.

Mr. Trintignant scored a huge hit with “Without Apparent Motive” (1971), as a detective in the French Riviera. In “Other People’s Money” (1978), a film that won the French equivalent of the best-picture Oscar, he was a bank executive tied up in a financial scandal. In 1983, he starred with Fanny Ardant in filmmaker François Truffaut’s final credit, the tepid mystery-comedy “Confidentially Yours,” and took a small role in the Nick Nolte film “Under Fire,” as a shady Frenchman on the CIA payroll in dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s Nicaragua.

Mr. Trintignant and Aimée reunited for Lelouch’s unfortunate update, “A Man and A Woman: 20 Years Later” (1986), but he fared better in “Three Colors: Red” (1994), the last and most highly regarded installment in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy about fickle destiny. Mr. Trintignant played a prickly and reclusive former judge who spies on his neighbors but who is also capable of unexpected tenderness.

As Mr. Trintignant’s career slowed, he spent more time at his medieval estate near Uzès, in the south of France, foraging for mushrooms and riding his motorcycle. His second marriage, to filmmaker Nadine Marquand, ended in divorce, and in 2000, he married professional racecar driver Marianne Hoepfner, his companion for decades.

Three years later, he plunged into a depression after a daughter from his second marriage, actress Marie Trintignant, died from injuries sustained in a beating by her lover, French rock star Bertrand Cantat, who was convicted of manslaughter.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son from his second marriage, Vincent Trintignant.

Mr. Trintignant was still reeling from the loss of his daughter when the script for “Amour” was offered. He told reporters that he almost turned it down because he found it too depressing and that he “was in a really dark period in my life,” even contemplating suicide.

Producer Margaret Ménégoz persuaded him to take the role by joking that she would assist him in the act, if only he would delay until filming was over. When the shoot was complete, Mr. Trintignant recalled to the Los Angeles Times, Ménégoz asked him, “Okay, how do we go about it?”

“Well,” he replied, “let’s wait a little.”

Leave a Comment