Friday 20 May 2022

In memoriam: Michel Bouquet (Telegraph 19/05/22)

Michel Bouquet, who has died aged 96, was a dedicated, much-laurelled French actor who took to the stage in post-War Paris, achieved movie fame in middle age as the New Wave dissipated, and completed his final film roles just last year. Mastering the theatrical canon as a youngster, he embodied the weak, compromised “modern man” in Claude Chabrol’s thriller
The Unfaithful Wife (1969); in later life, he lent his patrician bearing and sonorous voice to several notable figures in French history.

In Robert Guédiguian’s The Last Mitterrand (2005), a lightly fictionalised riff on actual events, Bouquet played the former French president, coaxed by a journalist into addressing his Vichy past. Bouquet’s rascally turn elevated a scholarly, slightly dry endeavour: Le Monde noted the way the actor “slipped into [Mitterrand’s] coat, put on his hat and, with astonishing charisma, composed a mischievous portrait… showing how a sacred monster could consume the soul of another.”

That Bouquet was unrecognisable from the octogenarian who returned to our screens, bearded and fierce of gaze, as the subject of Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir (2012), testament to the actor’s ability to disappear fully within the contours of a role. Nothing unduly dramatic happens in this absorbing, visually rich study of Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his Riviera dotage; Bourdos centred Bouquet’s finely-honed ability to hold an audience’s attention through craft alone.

Both in and out of the limelight, he was prone to self-effacement. He once described himself as “dull, banal, a little flat”, adding “the roles flesh me out.” As an aspiring thesp, he confessed to feeling too short (at 5’7”) for dramatic roles, and too serious-minded by nature to play comedy effectively.

In her memoir Le roman de ma vie, the actress Bernadette Lafont detailed how she once saw Bouquet explode at a script supervisor who’d claimed actors were overpaid, insisting “you have no idea what it means to carry the burden of a character who invades your life and haunts you even at night”. Bouquet later apologised, blaming the outburst on too much Burgundy. Nevertheless, he declared himself “too solitary for la vie de troupe”, maintaining that acting is “a very lonely job, just like painting. One does it in public, but the essence of it is secret”.

He was born Michel François Pierre Bouquet on November 6, 1925 in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, the youngest of four sons to winemaker Georges Bouquet and his milliner wife Marie. A WW1 veteran, Bouquet Sr. was a distant figure, quietly haunted by his wartime experiences. At seven, young Michel was dispatched to a Catholic boarding school for what he called “seven years of darkness and loneliness”.

He hoped to study medicine, but left school at 15 to support the family after Georges was held prisoner in Pomerania. During the Occupation, he worked in a bakery and a bank; following the Armistice, he juggled jobs as a warehouseman, dental technician and delivery driver.

Spurred by Marie’s love of the theatre, Michel signed up for acting classes, eventually studying at CNSAD, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. He made his stage debut within six months, impressing Albert Camus, who invited the 19-year-old to play Scipio in his 1945 production of Caligula.

Small film roles followed, as an assassin in Criminal Brigade (1947) and a TB patient in the Jean Anouilh-scripted Monsieur Vincent (1947), an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Yet the stage would be Bouquet’s primary home for the first twenty years of his career: excelling in Molière – despite those concerns about his comic chops – he also appeared in new work by Anouilh, Ionesco and Pinter.

An exceptional orator, he was hired to narrate Alain Resnais’ 32-minute Holocaust memorial Night and Fog (1955), from a script by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol. But another decade passed before Chabrol thought to cast him, first in the undistinguished An Orchid for the Tiger (1965) and The Road to Corinth (1967). The Unfaithful Wife was the pair’s standout collaboration, in large part due to Bouquet’s psychologically shaded turn as a cuckolded husband-turned-murderer.

Thereafter, he became a familiar arthouse face, often in supporting roles: as the detective in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969), a Mob lawyer in Belmondo-Delon actioner Borsalino (1970), one of many oddbods in the Belgian curio Malpertuis (1971). On TV, he was Javert in Robert Hossain’s acclaimed Les Misérables (1982), Mozart’s father in Mozart (1982) and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), for which he won the French equivalent of an Emmy.

The awards kept coming. He won a European Film Award for his role as the despairing older Toto in Toto the Hero (1991) and his first Molière award – French theatre’s highest accolade – at 73 for playing a rowdy pensioner in Bertrand Blier’s Les Côtelettes (1998). A second followed in 2005, for playing King Bérenger – a role he would play 800 times in total – in Ionesco’s Exit the King.

By the millennium, he was more in demand – and more revered – than ever. He won his first César – the French Oscar – as the father in Anne Fontaine’s melodrama How I Killed My Father (2001); he earned a second for playing Mitterrand, and was nominated for Renoir. He received the Legion d’Honneur in 2007, and the Grand-Croix in 2018.

A perfectionist, he stopped directing after his revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (co-directed with his first wife Ariane Borg) flopped in the 1950s. But he remained an influential teacher, penning multiple texts (and a memoir, Mémoire d’acteur, in 2001). His students included Fabrice Luchini, Anne Brochet and Maria de Medeiros.

He initially retired from the stage in 2011, but was drawn back by several choice roles, claiming at one point he was “never going to stop”. As late as 2018, it was announced that Bouquet would be appearing as Albert Einstein in Le cas Edouard Einstein, about the relationship between the scientist and his schizophrenic son. Yet tired by the preparations, he withdrew from the cast and made his retirement official, insisting “I had done everything I could”.

He is survived by his second wife, the actress Juliette Carré, who played Queen Marguerite to his King Bérenger in Exit the King.

Michel Bouquet, born November 6, 1925, died April 13, 2022.

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