Cracked Actor: Jean-Louis Trintignant
By BEATRICE LOAYZA
In the hands of the late Jean-Louis Trintignant, the seemingly unexceptional bourgeois is always more than meets the eye. A postwar star of primarily French and Italian films who racked up over 100 credits before his death this year at 91, the industrious actor was displacement personified, a plausible sicko who blended into the crowd. He played his fair share of hitmen and actioneers; his cold-blooded gaze and natural reticence gave him the look of an expert killer, be it righteous (a mute gunslinger in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 wintertime Western, The Great Silence) or unhinged (a serial murderer on the run in Jacques Deray’s Flic Story, 1975). He was an erotic-thriller regular, at home in the pulpiest of policiers and the murkiest of ménage à trois. His look—attractive in a bureaucratic way—and his air of propriety complicated his characters’ often fraught desires, which deepened in flavor, in texture, behind the curtain of his reserve.
One imagines him more at ease as bondage master, strapping Marie-France Pisier to a bed frame in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europe-Express (1966), or delighting in fantasies of his own cuckoldry (as in Guiseppe Patroni Griffi’s Love Circle, 1969), than with the customary in-and-out. His palette is refined, his tastes, acquired. Funny that in Éric Rohmer’s relatively prudish but still unconventional 1969 romance, My Night at Maud’s, Françoise Fabian’s eponymous divorcee pictures him as a “boy scout”—at least at first. As the night progresses, Trintignant’s stiff Michelin engineer begins to show his cards. “You’re both a shamefaced Christian and a shamefaced Don Juan!” observes Maud, confused yet drawn to this man of contradictions who sees no conflict between his sexual pastimes and his religious ideals. The pleasure of watching Trintignant onscreen is not so different: with him, it takes a while to see who you’re really looking at.
He was an erotic-thriller regular, at home in the pulpiest of policiers and the murkiest of ménage à trois.
Trintignant was born in 1930 in the unremarkable southeastern commune of Piolenc. Shortly after, he and his family of well-to-do industrialists moved 15 minutes north, to the equally banal town of Pont-Saint-Esprit, which claimed little of note beyond a bread-poisoning scandal in 1951. Timid and obedient, Jean-Louis was a child of known quantities, and even as a teenager he intended to continue along the path that his parents had set out for him, namely law school and employment at an uncle’s firm. Yet Jean-Louis was also a passionate boy with an artistic temperament churning beneath his docile veneer. His mother, a veritable bon vivant, dressed her son up as a girl until he was five, and under her influence, Trintignant went on to memorize the plays of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, read the poetry of Charles Rimbaud and Jacques Prévert religiously, and idolize the actor and theater director Charles Dullin. Jean-Louis, too, yearned to make legible his inner life, then an unbelievable feat for him, shy and beholden as he was to his provincial upbringing. Even when, as a less-inhibited 18-year-old, he resolved to go to Paris to pursue a career in the theater, his acting teachers saw their painfully self-conscious student as a lost cause.
Naturally, Jean-Louis improved. Bit roles on the stage turned to major ones—and then the cinema, in which several of his early parts made use of his bashful demeanor. Consider Dino Risi’s 1962 buddy comedy Il Sorpasso, in which Trintignant plays a rural law student, a “nice kid,” randomly sucked into the freewheeling world of a bachelor, Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), a kind of instructor in the art of pleasure and play. “Young Werther,” one character calls Trintignant’s Roberto. “He doesn’t even talk!” says another, wondering how someone his age could be so old-fashioned. The part unfolds like an appraisal of Trintignant’s apparent persona: he was a bit repressed, responsible, and mistakeably bland. Yet he yearned for adventure, knowing full well that what stood between him and sweet abandon was himself. Watch Roberto take in the bacchanalia around him, the way his eyes jot rapidly back and forth, enraptured, before dipping back into himself, frustrated by his inability to let go.\
Trintignant spent his life fending off darkness and ideations of suicide. His family seemed to power through misfortune, like the accidental death of an uncle, a racecar driver, who crashed his Bugatti while training for the 1933 Picardie Grand Prix. Trintignant was 14 when his hometown was freed from the Nazis, but with liberation also came disgrace: his mother—head shaven—was paraded around the streets alongside other women who had become the mistresses of German soldiers. In interviews, he remembers being reproached by his Resistance-leader father: how could you have allowed that? More well-known is the tragedy that struck Trintignant in his adult life, when his daughter, the actress Marie Trintignant, died at 41 after being severely beaten by her boyfriend.
His life, besieged by loss, came to bear on his very posture and comportment, with the men he played in the latter half of his career often soured by weariness and contempt. One thinks of his octogenarians in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and Happy End (2017), strikingly similar characters who see the world and all its emptiness with devastating clarity. As a younger actor, Jean-Louis wore his hurt on his sleeve—and it yielded disturbing results onscreen. In his breakout performance in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956), he’s a sensitive simpleton head over heels with an intractably horny Brigitte Bardot (his first and perhaps most pathetic rendition of the cuckolded man). Nevertheless, Vadim must have perceived something of the cruelty that would become a trademark of the actor’s most salacious roles. Toward the end of the film, when Bardot’s sexual parading finally incites Trintignant’s otherwise passive Michel into gun-toting action, he succumbs to his baser instincts and slaps his wife into submission. They both like it.
My Night At Maud’s (1969)
Trintignant’s star rose beside that of his New Wave contemporaries, with each actor offering a unique take on modern masculinity. There was the pug-nosed Jean-Paul Belmondo, with his hangdog charm and flippant machismo; the deceptively boyish Alain Delon, whose dispassionate baby blues match the shine of his revolver; Jean-Pierre Léaud, that Peter-Pan-esque weasel, lovably infuriating and infuriatingly lovable. As Trintignant took on more mature roles, his youthful temerity turned into something more elegant and intentionally restrained. He became a heartthrob of sorts—opposite Anouk Aimée in Claude Lelouch’s hit romance, A Man and a Woman (1966), he plays a tender widower, a passionate lover who, as a professional racecar driver, nevertheless courts death for a living.
Trintignant was of average height and build, and his beauty did not dazzle so much as it took one by surprise. He was hot, but in a discreet way—a secret between you and him. His brow bends sharply over his deep-set eyes, a combination that gives him a withholding expression, inviting us to unravel it with time. Then there are his lips, so fleshy and full of lust. There is no shortage of sex in the films of Trintignant, yet I find that the scenes of his with the most heat are simpler. Like the extended kiss that passes between himself and a blond-bobbed seductress in Tinto Brass’s Deadly Sweet (1966), which is shot in such intimate, skin-grazing close-up you can actually see the tiny tugs and pulls of their mouths. Unlike Delon—best served poolside in a tiny swimsuit, his comfort with nudity itself a kind of threat—Trintignant looks sexier with his clothes on: nestled in a trench coat, his eyes peering over the edge of a popped collar; or tucked into a full suit and tie while his naked lover stretches out before him.
Likewise, running never really flattered him. He found action in stillness and in the mental machinations behind a hyperactive gaze. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) comes to mind, the way Trintignant’s fascist-convert Marcello loses face, drawn in by the gravitational pull of his target’s self-possessed wife, before finally watching her die with a look somewhere between detachment, cowardice, and sick fascination. That’s perhaps why Trintignant was such a believably disciplined pencil-pusher, attuned as he was to the finer details, finding a kind of perverse thrill, even, in ensuring their proper arrangement. As Christos, the investigating magistrate in Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969)—a role that won Trintignant a Best Actor prize at Cannes—he first appears inconspicuously. He’s just another suit before suddenly emerging, halfway through, as the thriller’s unrelenting detective figure, questioning witnesses with machine-like speed and precision. The supposed objectivity of the law finds expression in Trintignant’s unyielding austerity, though his visage occasionally betrays the subtlest shades of gratification. Such is the functionary’s delight, the sense of control that comes with the disciplining of others, the libidinal reliance on systems of right and wrong. No wonder Trintignant was, time and again, drawn to films with sadomasochistic dynamics: they allowed him a kind of power, a feeling of certainty, typically claimed in sustained illusions and in dreams.
And what greater fantasies are there than the designs of bourgeois conformity? The pomp and ceremony of organized religion, perhaps? Only Trintignant could relish in the inherent decadence of Catholic traditions as well as the abiding of its strictures, as he does in My Night at Maud’s. His Jean-Louis is a man of codes, a student of mathematics who wonders aloud how amusing it would be if he could calculate the chances of randomly running into his friend over the next two months. He predestines his life by announcing his intentions to marry a girl he hasn’t met, a lithe blonde he spots during mass who is nothing like the dashing Maud. There could never be anything between him and Maud, that wild card nonbeliever—though maybe there could be. During that fateful night he spends with her, he wraps himself straitjacket-tight in a blanket, recoiling when they briefly touch in their morning stupor. It’s absurd the way he so meticulously sticks to the plan, abandoning reason for the sake of lofty principles. But Trintignant is no conventional disciple: with self-control comes a kind of inscrutable, tortuous pleasure that the actor makes beautifully visible. For Trintignant, there will always be delicacies worth preserving.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, the Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.