Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has died aged 91, was a thoughtful French leading man who worked with many leading international directors over his sixty-year career. He will be most vividly remembered, however, for the two roles he himself cited as his very best. Marcello Clerici, the ambivalent assassin of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), was a stark evolution of the hesitant provincial types the actor had previously sketched, deftly insinuating how susceptible callow masculinity can be to fascistic impulses. Four decades later, Trintignant re-emerged to more heartbreaking effect as Georges, the agonised husband tending to a stricken wife in Michael Haneke’s unsparing Amour (2012). A late-career triumph, it won the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Generally, Trintignant ducked the limelight. He had been burned by celebrity while making Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (1956), one of his first major credits, where his on-and-offscreen affair with co-star (and Vadim’s then-wife) Brigitte Bardot generated such furore that the actor entered military service to clear his head. Elements of personal tragedy may have added to the reclusiveness, not least the loss of two daughters: Pauline, a victim of cot death in 1969, and Marie, a gifted actress killed by musician boyfriend Bertrand Cantat in 2003. In a 2018 TV interview, Trintignant admitted Marie’s death left him “completely destroyed”. He threw himself into his work, while insisting – with typical self-deprecation – that a hundred of his credits would be better forgotten.
He was born Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant on December 11, 1930 in the commune of Piolenc to food industrialist Raoul Trintignant and wife Claire (née Tourtin). It was an illustrious family – uncles Maurice and Louis were celebrated racing drivers – and an unconventional childhood. Claire Trintignant, longing for a daughter, initially raised her son in skirts; when Raoul disappeared with the Resistance and his wife was taken hostage during WW2, Jean-Louis and older brother Fernand spent four months hiding in a forest. A distracted student – more interested in cars and playing cards than books – the teenage Trintignant quit law school in Aix-en-Provence after a year, setting out for the national film school IDHEC in Paris with an eye to becoming a director.
Natural timidity made that an unlikely career goal, however, and tutors proposed he transfer to acting classes to help him overcome his shyness. It was here that Trintignant found his métier, training alongside such future luminaries as Delphine Seyrig, Michel Lonsdale, and – crucially – Stéphane Audran, whom Trintignant married in 1954. After several stage credits, he made a quiet screen debut in 1955 among the supporting cast of telefilm L’Assassin a pris le Metro, then suddenly found himself faced with Bardot amid Vadim’s succès de scandale. The subsequent affair scuppered his marriage, and while he avoided the Algerian conflict, conscription hardly helped his mental equilibrium: “I was a wreck when I got out… it was six months before I could talk to a normal person.”
Among those with whom he did converse was the editor Nadine Marquand, sister of his …And God Created Woman co-star Christian: the pair married in 1961 and had their first child, Marie, in 1963. By then, Trintignant was rediscovering his love of acting in classical roles: Vadim sportingly recast him as Danceny in his Les liaisons dangereuses (1959), and he was a well-received Hamlet in 1962. Shaded material started coming his way – he was a fascist hitman in Le combat dans l’ile (1962), and emergent Greek director Costa-Gavras nabbed him for The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) – yet it was A Man and a Woman (1966), that glossy, catchily scored meeting of bereaved souls, which made him a star. (This despite the fact Trintignant found co-star Anouk Aimée “aloof”.)
More challenging was the archly modernist Trans-Europ-Express (1966), the first of several collaborations with novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which Trintignant played both himself and a drug-running sadist. By this point, Trintignant had become the go-to actor for cineastes looking to cast cultured yet somehow ambiguous protagonists. In 1968, he made the thriller Les biches, negotiating tricky love scenes with ex Audran beneath the eye of her new husband Claude Chabrol, and won the Berlin Silver Bear for another dual role in Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies. The following year, he toplined two of the nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, memorable as both the judge in Costa-Gavras’s Z and the self-deluding narrator of Eric Rohmer’s timeless Ma Nuit Chez Maud.
Professional triumph – Z won both in that category and at Cannes, where Trintignant won Best Actor – was soon tempered by personal tragedy. Within days, the actor suffered the loss of his mother and the nine-month-old Pauline while shooting The Conformist in Rome. That perhaps explains the numbness in Marcello Clerici; Trintignant acknowledged that Bertolucci “made use of my grief.” The two became close, collaborating on dialogue for the director’s follow-up Last Tango in Paris (1972), although the nudity dissuaded Trintignant from playing the lead role. He subsequently drifted around Europe, spending the shooting of Italian thriller The Sunday Woman (1975) failing to woo co-star Jacqueline Bisset. Divorce from Nadine followed in 1976, after the pair had made the autobiographical Honeymoon.
By the late 1970s, Trintignant had relocated to a medieval house in Uzès, close to his southern roots, where he turned down Close Encounters (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979), preferring to collect mushrooms and ride his motorbike through the woods (“a marvellous existence”). He was occasionally tempted out of seclusion by old friends or directors with something to say – for Truffaut’s Hitchcockian last hurrah Finally, Sunday! (1983), as the director guiding a young Juliette Binoche in Rendez-Vous (1985), reteaming with a more approachable Aimée on A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986). Yet he found himself bored of hitting the same old marks, prematurely announcing his retirement in a 1987 interview: “I’m tired of this profession… There are no more stories to tell.”
There were. He returned as an SS officer in Bertrand Blier’s Merci la vie (1991), then – more prominently yet – in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s late masterpiece Three Colours Red (1994), which made crafty play of Trintignant’s reputation by casting him as a reclusive judge drawn into the orbit of a fashion model. He went on to make two films that were instrumental in launching the writer-director Jacques Audiard – gangster pastiche See How They Fall (1994) and nimbly postmodern WW2 tale A Self-Made Hero (1996) – and capped this unexpected renaissance in 2000 by marrying his longtime companion, the former endurance driver Marianne Hoepfner, with whom the actor had driven during the Spa 24-hour race in 1981 and the Monte Carlo rally in 1982.
Marie’s death, months after father and daughter had appeared together in comedy Janis and John (2003), was followed by the announcement Trintignant would henceforth concentrate exclusively on stage work. It was Michael Haneke who persuaded him otherwise, first deploying Trintignant as the narrator on the French dub of his The White Ribbon (2009), then as Georges in Amour, a title only alighted upon after the actor suggested that love – in its many, sometimes difficult forms – was the film’s real subject. It was a vindication, winning Trintignant his first César award after four prior nominations, and led to Haneke reviving Georges in Happy End (2017) as the gruffly detached patriarch of a well-to-do family implicated in the migrant crisis.
After retiring from theatre in 2013, Trintignant withdrew from movies in 2018 following a prostate cancer diagnosis, although he completed a third entry in the A Man and a Woman series, The Best Years of a Life, which opened in France in January. He directed two films himself: the black comedy A Fine Day’s Work (1973), about a baker murdering the jurors who sentenced his son to death, and comedy-drama The Swimming Instructor (1979). He retained that inherited love of speed, but elsewhere adopted a measured, whittling approach to his craft, insisting “I try to get down to basics… The best actor has to be the one who says the most with the fewest words and gestures. By working from the inside.”
Trintignant is survived by Hoepfner and by Vincent Trintignant, one of his three children by his second wife Nadine.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, born December 11, 1930, died June 17, 2022.