Jean-Louis Trintignant, the thoughtful French actor who headlined such art house classics as A Man and a Woman, My Night at Maud’s, The Conformist, Three Colors: Red and Amour, has died. He was 91.
Trintignant died Friday at his home in the Gard region of southern France, his wife, Marianne, and agent told the Agence France-Presse.
Trintignant received a number of accolades throughout his 60-plus-year career, including the best actor prize from Cannes in 1969 for Costa-Gavras’ political thriller Z and a Cesar Award in 2013 for Michael Haneke’s Amour, which also won the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
With more than 130 screen and 50-plus stage credits to his name, Trintignant was a highly prolific and respected talent who could perform anything from Shakespeare to commercial French comedies, from art house favorites by Bertolucci, Kieślowski and Truffaut to popular romances and sci-fi flicks — as when he provided the voice of a talking brain in The City of Lost Children (1995).
Trintignant became an international star after his turn as a race car driver and lover of Anouk Aimée in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966), which won Academy Awards for best screenplay and foreign-language film. He and Aimée were hailed as “the best screen couple since William Powell and Myrna Loy” by The Guardian.
In 2017, Trintignant said in an interview that he was done as an actor. But he decided to take on one last role, reprising the character he played opposite Aimée in Lelouch’s 2019 epilogue to A Man and a Woman.
Although he was a major French star for a half-century, Trintignant mostly remained out of the public eye except for a much-publicized fling with Brigitte Bardot during the shooting of And God Created Women (1956), directed by her husband, Roger Vadim (he played the deceived husband in the film). The affair thrust Trintignant onto front pages of the local tabloids, while the movie transformed Bardot into an international sex symbol.
His life was marred by tragedy: In 2003, his first daughter, the actress Marie Trintignant, was murdered by French rock star Bertrand Cantat during a hotel room dispute in Lithuania. And in 1970, his second daughter, Pauline, died at 9 months old while the actor and his then-wife, Nadine, were shooting a movie in Rome. (The event was fictionalized in the 1971 film It Only Happens to Others, starring Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni.)
Known for his intensely withdrawn characters and hypnotic voice, which he used to record several popular audio collections of French literature and poetry, Trintignant was a humble performer with a remarkable screen and stage presence. Yet he never chewed up the scenery or tried to stand out in the spotlight.
In one of his last interviews, he wryly reflected on his profession.
“I was extremely shy. And being famous didn’t interest me,” he told the French daily Nice-Matin. “You know, it’s amusing the first time around, then not at all. Why do they give us awards? We’re already well paid. They’d be better off giving Oscars to people working jobs that aren’t fun at all.”
Trintignant was born on Dec. 11, 1930, in the southern French town of Piolenc. His father, who fought in the resistance during World War II, was a local industrialist and mayor. His uncle, Maurice, was the first French Formula One driver to win a championship, inspiring Trintignant to take up race car driving. (The actor drove his own stunts in A Man and a Woman and was part of France’s Star Racing Team. He suffered a near-fatal accident during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1980.)
After the family moved to Aix-en-Provence, Trintignant began acting in his late teens and early twenties, performing plays by Molière and Shakespeare. He then studied to become a film director at the famous IDHEC film school in Paris. In order to pay the bills, he took on minor screen roles, landing his first big break in 1956 as one of the three men involved with the promiscuous Juliete (Bardot) in And God Created Woman.
Trintignant then disappeared from the scene to fulfill his mandatory military service, which included a stint in the Algerian War that would affect him forever. But he returned as one of the leads in Vadim’s adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (1959), starring alongside Gerard Philipe, Jeanne Moreau and Boris Vian.
He made dozens of movies throughout the next decade, most notably A Man and a Woman; Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies (1968), which earned him a Golden Bear in Berlin; Claude Chabrol’s erotic thriller Les Biches (1968); the Oscar foreign-language winner Z, in which he played an idealistic young lawyer; and Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), considered one of the best French films of the ’60s.
Trintignant kicked off the 1970s with what was arguably his best screen role, playing a tormented assassin in The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci’s searing and splendid political thriller set in pre-WWII fascist Italy. The film was immediately hailed as a classic; Trintignant claimed it and Amour were the finest movies he ever made.
Alongside a busy film career, Trintignant was a regular stage presence in Paris, starting with a 1960 production of Hamlet at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. He would perform in plays by Jean Giraudoux, Françoise Sagan, William Gibson and Louis Aragon, earning a Molière nomination in 2005 for Samuel Benchetrit’s Moins deux.
Late in life, he would perform live readings of poems by such authors as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jacques Prevert, Boris Vian and Robert Desnos.
Trintignant worked less starting in the mid-1990s to spend more time in his native southern France, where he invested in a vineyard — the domaine Rouge Garance — specializing in prized Cotes du Rhone.
Still, the end of his career was marked by a handful of major roles. He played the retired Judge Kern in Krzysztof Kieślowki’s Three Colors: Red (1994), which was nominated for three Oscars and proved to be the director’s final masterpiece. He also starred in Jacques Audiard’s first two features at the helm, See How They Fall (1994) and A Self-Made Hero (1996), and earned a Cesar nomination for best supporting actor in Patrick Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998).
But it was his performance at age 82 in Haneke’s Amour (2012) that became one of his career highlights, earning Trintignant a Cesar. Playing a husband tending to his incapacitated wife (Emmanuelle Riva), he turned in an understated and incredibly moving performance that was one of his greatest.
Of the film, Trintignant told the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche: “The character moved me enormously. Like him, I’m at the end of my life. And like him, I think a lot about suicide. Whatever part Haneke wants to cast me as next, I’ll take it.”
Indeed, one of Trintignant’s last screen roles was in Haneke’s Happy End, on which he performed most of his scenes from a wheelchair. He continued to act on stage until 2018 in a show titled Trintignant/Mille/Piazzolla that mixed poetry and music, and then joined Aimée for one more go at the A Man and a Woman saga in Les Plus belles annees.
“Growing old is just a series of problems,” he said in interview after announcing that he had cancer. “But in the end, it was good I stayed alive for so long. I was able to meet a lot of interesting people.”