French actor Michel Bouquet dies at 96

Michel Bouquet, an award-winning French actor who brought an understated magnetism to classic stage roles and New Wave films, often playing bourgeois characters whose respectable appearance masked a turbulent and passionate inner life, died on April 13 in a hospital in Paris. He was 96 years old.

His death was confirmed in a statement from the Élysée Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office, which did not cite a cause. “For seven decades,” said Macron, “Michel Bouquet has brought theater and cinema to the highest degree of incandescence and truth, showing the man in all his contradictions, with an intensity that burned the boards and made burst the screen”.

Mr. Bouquet began in the theater by collaborating with playwrights such as Albert Camus and Jean Anouilh, before rubbing shoulders with New Wave directors such as Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, who cast him as morose anti-heroes and in offbeat supporting roles. where it is easily recognizable. by his deep voice, his shining eyes and his mischievous smile.

“He is a very original actor. Even though he looks very relaxed and smiling, there is something about his acting that is disconcerting, destabilizing, that always causes strangeness,” filmmaker Anne Fontaine said in an interview with The New York Times. in 2002. Mr. Bouquet starred the previous year in his film ‘How I Killed My Father’, winning a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for his portrayal of an aging doctor who returns to the life of her sons decades after leaving them.

Mr. Bouquet appeared in nearly 120 film and television roles even as he remained active on the Parisian stage, participating until retirement age – he starred in a production of “Tartuffe” by Molière at 92 – and playing the title role in “Eugène Ionesco ‘Exit the King’ more than 800 times. He won the country’s highest theatrical honor, the Molière, in 1998 and 2005, for his performances in Bertrand Blier’s absurdist play “Les Côtelettes” and in “Exit the King”, as a narcissistic leader coming to terms with his mortality.

Working with Chabrol, he starred in “La femme infidèle” (“The Unfaithful Wife, 1969), as a jealous husband driven to commit what New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called “one of the saddest and funniest murders ever staged in cinema,” hitting his wife’s lover over the head with a stone bust. He and Chabrol teamed up again on “Just Before Nightfall” (1971), in which he played a guilt-ridden man who kills his lover on a sadomasochistic date, then confesses to his crime while seeking forgiveness or may -be fair in seeking punishment.

Mr. Bouquet was also a favorite of Truffaut, who featured him as a bachelor targeted for death in ‘The Bride Was Black’ (1968), a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, and as a private detective attacked by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the romantic drama “Mississippi Mermaid” (1969). He frequently played crooked lawmen, including as a policeman on an obsessive quest for revenge in “The Cop” (1970).

But he also went well beyond detective films, delivering the poignant narration of Alain Resnais’ seminal Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” (1956) and playing the role of a despotic newspaper editor who fires a employed for having sweaty palms in “The Toy” (1976), a satirical comedy adapted into a Hollywood film starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason.

He won his second César for “The Last Mitterrand” (2005), in which he played former socialist president Francois Mitterrand, struggling with his political legacy and impending death from prostate cancer. “He’s a bit stiff, but moves with the grace of a dancer,” wrote David Gritten, reviewer for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “By turns charming, arrogant, childish and teasing, Bouquet offers a masterclass in understated character play and delivers an indelible rendition of a complex and infuriating man.”

Mr. Bouquet was born in Paris on November 6, 1925. His father, a World War I veteran, was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II and spent four years in captivity in Pomerania. His mother was a milliner who accompanied him to the Opéra-Comique during the Nazi occupation, making him forget the conflict and revealing to him the power of the theatre.

“Each time the curtain rose, there was no longer the horror of war, there were no more Germans around. … The unreal world far exceeded the real world,” Mr. Bouquet told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “It was the best lesson of my life.”

Supervised by theater actor Maurice Escande, he trained at the Paris Conservatory, performed at the first Avignon arts festival in 1947 and developed a close working relationship with Camus, appearing in his plays “Caligula”, “Les Righteous Assassins” and Dostoyevsky’s adaptation “The Possessed”. He later helped popularize the work of British playwright Harold Pinter in France and starred in works of existential angst and anxiety by Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard .

“In the theatre, the author’s personality is so majestic, whether it’s Pinter or Molière, that all you do is try to convey the word as obediently as possible,” he told AFP. “It’s forgetting yourself that is the most important.”

On screen, Mr. Bouquet starred in the Belgian film “Toto the Hero” (1991), as an old man preoccupied with thoughts of what might have been, and in “Les Miserables” (1982), as as a rigid Inspector Javert. He received a third César nomination for “Renoir” (2012), portraying the impressionist painter as an authoritarian artist suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in his old age.

His marriage to actress Ariane Borg ended in divorce. He later married Juliette Carré, with whom he often performed. She survived him, according to the Élysée press release, but additional information about the survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Bouquet was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 2018 and announced his retirement the following year.

“I did what I could, as I could, and I didn’t ask myself too many questions,” he confided at the time, looking back on his career. “I made my merry way but without any intellectual pretension.”

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