Jean-Louis Trintignant, a prolific actor on screen (nearly 150 films to his credit) and stage, a master at reciting poetry, racing driver, and winegrower, among other things, not to mention that he directed two films – A Full Day's Work (1972) and Le Maître-nageur (1978). What we remember first of all is the voice, a voice so particular, warm and deep, full and reassuring. Intimate. An undeniably singular voice that one could listen to for hours, in a loop, without tiring of it. We'd almost like to put the words he spoke in all his films end to end, in succession, pure chimera, like a vocal ribbon in the form of a never-ending monologue. Jean-Louis Trintignant as himself, author of an oral work.
But it would be a pity to deprive this voice of the lines spoken by its numerous and sublime partners: Brigitte Bardot, Anouk Aimée, Romy Schneider, Dominique Sanda, Françoise Fabian, Catherine Deneuve, Stéphane Audran, Simone Signoret, Isabelle Huppert, Léa Massari, Emmanuelle Riva, Irène Jacob, Juliette Binoche, Fanny Ardant, and so many others. Because in the cinema, attraction and charm takes two to function. Trintignant was an actor of seduction, deeply appealing, an ex-young lead. Eternal "young lead" even, a term he didn't like, even hated. It dated from And God Created Woman (1956), Roger Vadim's film, which made him world famous due to his role as Brigitte Bardot's partner. And also because he was her lover in real life. The Bardot myth was huge at the time and took on proportions that we have difficulty imagining today. A film, by its audacity and especially that of its actress, freed from the moral and sexual corset of the post-war years, laughing and dancing, as if in a sexual trance, shook up the old codes of French cinema – and of cinema in general. Shortly after this, Trintignant did his military service, which was of long duration at that time. He returned to the cinema, starting all over again. Fortunately, there was Italy, where he was in demand: Valerio Zurlini (Violent Summer, 1959), Dino Risi (Il Sorpasso, 1962), then later Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence, a Western in the snow), and above all Bernardo Bertolucci with The Conformist (1970), a worrying, threatening role, showing another facet of this shy man. In the meantime, there was the New Wave in France, which passed by Trintignant. And vice versa. The encounter was fragmented: Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (The Beating Heart, starring Françoise Brion, 1960), Claude Chabrol (Les Biches / Bad Girls, 1967), Éric Rohmer (the unforgettable My Night at Maud's, 1969). But there was also Alain Cavalier (Le Combat dans l'île / Fire and Ice, 1962), Costa Gavras (The Sleeping Car Murders, 1965, and especially Z in 1969, the famous and unforgettable role of the "little judge," shy and self-effacing but proving to be tough and implacable in the face of the thugs at the service of the dictatorship). And of course Claude Lelouch, with A Man and a Woman, Palme d’or in 1966 and a worldwide success. Then, The Crook / Simon the Swiss, and other films.
The encounter with François Truffaut came late. Hugely late, one could say, because Confidentially Yours was the filmmaker's last film, made in 1983, a year before his death. In 1979, Trintignant wrote to Truffaut, "I would have loved to be in your films, you would have been happy and I would have been good... I consider myself a man who has time to do what he loves." No doubt he was referring to the roles Truffaut played in his own films: The Wild Child, Day for Night, and The Green Room. Roles that would have well suited Trintignant, who bore a resemblance to the film director: same height, same timid look, same seduction through shyness.
A few years later, he and Truffaut finally found the opportunity to work together, with Confidentially Yours. In a letter sent before the shoot, Truffaut wrote to the actor: "If you accept this role, we will adopt a supple, loafer-like gait." I really like this notion of a supple film, with an easy gait, "loafer-like," because it corresponds perfectly to the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, throughout his entire career. He said he was shy in his youth, probably due to his southern accent, because he was born in the Vaucluse, on December 11, 1932. He had to correct this accent, erase it, when he decided to "go up to Paris," in the 1950s, to try his luck in the theater, and overcome his shyness. I am convinced that he used this shyness as a strong point of his acting: hence a certain restraint, a taste for mystery, a singular way of performing by masking his desire, while maintaining it on the surface. To be present, while at the same time effacing oneself. Great actors show themselves and hide themselves, all at once, according to an art or a mystery that only they know.
Deep down, Jean-Louis Trintignant did not like his film actor status, it seemed to weigh on his shoulders. No doubt he found it humiliating, preferring the theater and the great plays, such as Shakespeare's Hamlet, which he performed twice. Later, poetry, Apollinaire, Prévert, Vian, Aragon. He loved more than anything to go on tour with his daughter Marie, to perform poetry readings of Guillaume Apollinaire's Poèmes à Lou. From one day to the next, this was no longer possible because his daughter died in atrocious (and scandalous) circumstances, and life would never be the same again. The pain never left him. He took refuge in solitude and the contemplation of nature.
He regarded the cinema, where he excelled, in Italy as in France, with an amused, mocking eye. In the past. He kept his distance and often said goodbye, returning to it sometimes, convinced by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colours : Red,1994), Jacques Audiard (See the Men Fall, 1994), and Patrice Chéreau (Those Who Love Me Will Take the Train, 1998). Three magnificent roles. And of course by Claude Lelouch, to whom he would remain loyal until the end, The Best Years of a Life being the actor's last film, released in 2019.
There was also and especially the encounter with Michael Haneke. I recall the preview of The White Ribbon, Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, for which Trintignant was one of the dubbing voices for the French version. Haneke had come to present his film at the Cinémathèque and Trintignant was in the auditorium. The Austrian director was very keen to give him a role in his next film, Love. Margaret Menegoz, Films du Losange producer, had to work hard to convince Trintignan to accept the lead role, alongside Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert. Trintignant refused: "I'd rather kill myself than make a film." "Make the film, you can commit suicide afterwards, I'll help you if you want." We know what happened next. Not only did the film win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was also awarded the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, and Trintignant received the César for Best Actor. The actor and the director met again five years later, for Happy End, alongside Isabelle Huppert and Mathieu Kassovitz.
Arthouse films, popular films, films seen and re-seen, in theaters or on television. Jean-Louis Trintignant belongs, with a few rare actors, to our intimate and mental landscape. He is there for life.