Serge Toubiana pays tribute to Michel Bouquet and his incredible life as an actor

Serge Toubiana pays tribute to Michel Bouquet and his incredible life as an actor

Michel Bouquet has just passed away, he was 96. What an incredible life as a stage and cinema actor! Without a doubt, one of France's greatest.

He started out, after the war, in films that are often forgotten. Undeservedly so. Under the direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot, he played in Manon (1949), under Jean Grémillon in the admirable White Paws the same year, and later under Sacha Guitry in Royal Affairs in Versailles (1954), while also working tirelessly on television dramas and series (La caméra explore le temps, between 1958 and 1963), as well as short films and other productions. And, of course, in the theater. A normal, almost uneventful career.

Then Claude Chabrol came on the scene and offered him roles in films that were not even among this great filmmaker's best achievements: An Orchid for the Tiger / Our Agent Tiger (1965), Who's Got the Black Box? (1967), followed by the masterpiece The Unfaithful Wife, alongside Stéphane Audran and Maurice Ronet (1969), The Breach (1970), and the little-known, but brilliant, Just Before Nightfall, also opposite Stéphane Audran and François Périer (1971). Here, he played the husband and François Périer, the lover—both men were in love with the same woman, the magnificent Stéphane Audran—the argument scene between the two friends, when one tells the other that he has killed his wife, is unforgettable. It's as if Chabrol and Bouquet had signed a secret pact—the former wishing to make a comeback after the commercial failure of a number of his films (despite the fact that they were fabulous) and forced to make second-rate films, and the latter finally ready to take the plunge into a more modern, more audacious cinema. Chabrol and Bouquet would reunite many years later for Chicken with Vinegar (1985).

From Chabrol to Truffaut, the path opened up naturally. Two films stand out: The Bride Wore Black—in which Bouquet is luminous as he watches Jeanne Moreau dancing, the wide-eyed stare of a man who, before dying of poisoning, can't help but look at this deadly goddess—and Mississippi Mermaid, in which he plays detective Comolli, who desperately tries to track down the beautiful Marion (Catherine Deneuve), a con-artist and thief who poses as another woman to marry the naive Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo), scheming to strip him of his wealth. We must also mention Yves Boisset, with whom Michel Bouquet shared a part of his career: The Cop, from 1970, and The French Conspiracy (1972). And let's not forget all the other major directors who called on Bouquet, from Henri Verneuil to Robert Guédiguian, as well as Anne Fontaine, Bertrand Blier, Pierre Zucca, Robert Hossein, Catherine Binet, Jacques Deray, Gilles Bourdos, André Cayatte, Jaco Van Dormael, Alain Corneau, José Giovanni, and Bernard Stora, among many others.

Michel Bouquet had an extraordinary career, one that was highly eclectic thanks to his immense talent, and which was astonishing by its longevity—spanning over seventy years—as he alternated between cinema and theater, as well as television and short films. All of this reveals a tremendous humility on his part. It is a vivid demonstration that talent and humility can coexist in perfect harmony. He came from the old-school film world of the post-war era, and, by chance, crossed paths with the New Wave, which not only helped to revitalize his career but also turned him into a "modern" and secretive actor, one who was always receptive, at times taciturn, who erased all traces of psychology in order to serve the roles he was entrusted with. His greatness came from his capacity to mask his feelings, to play "from the inside" and in a "neutral" manner. I really appreciated his approach—his arms dangling idly, his body slightly stooped, a kind of Mr. Average. He tapped into ordinariness, making it mysterious. His life was focused on playing, acting, he adored it, he loved to place himself at the service of others in his interpretation of the roles he was offered. In the theater (where he enjoyed an immense career that started in 1944 and continued until 2017), just as much as in the cinema. He played it all, from Molière to Albert Camus, Thomas Bernhard, Jean Anouilh, from Gogol to Shakespeare, via Ionesco and Pinter, Beckett, and Strindberg, in productions directed by Claude Régy, Roger Planchon, and Jean Vilar, to mention only a few great names. And he excelled. Yes, an incredible life as a stage and cinema actor. A tribute to him.

Serge Toubiana


Article by  Serge Toubiana

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