From Godard’s Le Mépris to Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, Piccoli’s prolific career saw him evolve into a legend of European cinema
•Michel Piccoli dies aged 94
•A life in pictures
In his 70-year career, working for directors like Godard, Bunuel, Varda, Clouzot, Hitchcock, Moretti, Chabrol and Sautet, Michel Piccoli had become something like a sacred or profane monster in French cinema: a character actor or complicated leading player who put strength into a picture like a flexed muscle. His robust, rugged looks were not quite like Gabin’s, and certainly a world away from the smouldering sexiness of Belmondo or the ethereal beauty of Delon. He could play a lost soul, a man with secrets, a predator, a sensualist, a politician, an artist, a leader of men. In both his youth and age he was intensely masculine in an unadorned and ungroomed way, the male version of jolie-laide, perhaps. Piccoli was beau-laid or beau-moche, and destructively sexy with it.
Perhaps nowadays only Vincent Cassel comes close to Piccoli’s ability to project and dramatise a fierce detachment and self-reliance – and Piccoli’s was the ideal face for conveying contempt, the concept at the heart of Le Mépris, the 1963 film by Jean-Luc Godard. Without that role, he might have been condemned to play forever the kind of supporting roles — interesting, but not the sort to make one’s name — of the sort that Jean-Pierre Melville had given him in Le Doulos, or The Stoolpigeon, in 1962, the creepy club-owner that Belmondo’s tough-guy tries to frame for a cop killing.