Jean-Louis Trintignant, French actor with powerful restraint, dies at 91

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Jean-Louis Trintignant, a French actor with a discreet magnetism who achieved international fame in the 1960s and 1970s by playing a racing driver in love in “A man and a woman”, an enigmatic prosecutor in “Z” and a fascist assassin gay locked in “The Conformist”, died on June 17 at his home in Gard, in the south of France. He was 91 years old.

His wife, Marianne, confirmed his death to Agence France-Presse but did not provide a cause. In 2017, he revealed a diagnosis of cancer.

Over a career spanning seven decades and more than 130 films, Mr Trintignant was considered one of the most accomplished, if reluctant, European film stars of his generation. He was private, restless and fearful of repeating himself in his work, and sometimes threatened to retire from show business altogether.

Its reputation is based on a handful of commercial successes and arthouse favorites: “A man and a woman” (1966) with the delirious styling of filmmaker Claude Lelouch, the Oscar-winning political thriller “Z” (1969) by Costa-Gavras, the cerebral film and sexy romantic drama “My Night at Maud’s” (1969) and disturbing “Le Conformiste” by Bernardo Bertolucci (1970).

At 82, Mr. Trintignant came out of a 15-year retirement to give a masterful performance as an educated Parisian caring for his unfit wife in “Amour” (2012), which won him the Oscar for best language film. abroad as well as the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a signature Trintignant turn, featuring a character whose intellect and emotional reserve hide an inner torment.

“The best actors in the world,” he once said, “are those who feel the most and show the least.”

The aimless son of a successful industrialist, he said he started acting simply as a way to overcome his shyness on the path to becoming a director. In his early filmography, the towering 5-foot-8 Mr. Trintignant was often portrayed as shy, innocent, and powerless in the face of forces he didn’t understand or control.

He caught the attention of moviegoers in “And God Created Woman” (1956) by Roger Vadim, a showcase of Brigitte Bardot’s freewheeling sexuality. He played her solemn husband, who watches as his manly brother catches his eye. Off screen, the two co-stars embarked on a torrid affair that ended their two marriages, Bardot’s with Vadim and Mr. Trintignant’s with actress Stéphane Audran.

A series of milquetoast parts followed – the most notable of which were his roles in ‘The Easy Life’ (1962) and ‘The Success’ (1963), Italian comedies in which Mr. Trintignant’s gentle and rigidly moralistic personality contrasted with the noisy charisma of Vittorio Gassman. The films are critical and popular successes which propel Mr. Trintignant to the forefront of European cinema.

As a cinematic presence, he carried none of the overt sexual mystiques of other French stars of the time – the playfulness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the beauty of Alain Delon, the world-weariness of Yves Montand. Mr. Trintignant’s trademark was a superficial, pleasant banality that masked depths of strength or despair.

“He emphasized his mediocrity, turned his seeming lack of definition into some sort of uncanny strength,” film critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in The New York Times. “Film after film, he comes across as such a mundane man that you have to wonder if there’s anything going on beneath that opaque surface. And then slowly, painstakingly, he unwraps the package and shows you what’s inside. He always seems cautious and watchful, waiting for the moment when he can (or must) reveal himself.

He cemented his popularity in “A Man and a Woman”, co-starring Anouk Aimée as star-crossed widowed lovers. They begin an almost wordless affair against the backdrop of sunset beach walks and filmed conversations through mist-soaked windshields.

The drama, with an instantly canonized samba score by Francis Lai, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was a box office sensation. Mr. Trintignant, an amateur racing driver and nephew of two-time Monaco Grand Prix winner Maurice Trintignant, has had his own run on screen.

In “Z,” Mr. Trintignant was a seemingly detached and colorless prosecutor leading an official investigation into the military-ordered killing of an opposition leader. His horn-rimmed glasses, well-worn suit, and cipher-like personality suggest a bureaucrat going through the stages, but his steely determination and political savvy gradually emerge.

The film won the Oscar for best foreign language film and Mr. Trintignant’s performance won him the Cannes Film Festival award for best actor. “He suited me very well,” the actor recalls of the character, “someone very discreet, very shy, but who knows exactly what he wants, and I’m a bit like him; in the end, by dint of stubbornness, I always get what I want.

In “The Conformist”, he played a sexually confused political opportunist in 1930s Italy who finds succor in fascism and agrees to become an assassin for Mussolini’s regime.

Mr. Trintignant later wrote in his memoirs that his mother and baby daughter, Pauline, died during filming. ‘It may be horrible to say that,’ he observed, ‘but at such times the sensitivity becomes extraordinarily acute. And Bertolucci, who was very close to me, took advantage of my grief.

New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael praised Mr. Trintignant for “an almost unbelievable intuitive understanding of screen presence; her face is never too full of emotion, never completely blank. Comparing him to Humphrey Bogart, Kael added: “He has Bogart’s grinning, teething reflexes – the cynicism and humor erupt into savagery.”

Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant was born in Piolenc, a village in the south of France, on December 11, 1930, and grew up in Pont-Saint-Esprit and Aix-en-Provence. Rebelling against his parents’ wishes, he dropped out of law school and soon began performing in Paris. He won good reviews for his stage work in demanding roles such as Hamlet while embarking on a checkered film career.

He appears in experimental films directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, best known for his avant-garde literature. Mr. Trintignant was also Simone Signoret’s young lover in ‘The Sleeping Car Murders’ (1965), Costa-Gavras’ acclaimed debut film, and played a narrowly wounded Catholic undone by a chaste encounter with a divorcee in ‘My Night at Maud’s.

He portrayed an aloof playboy in a threesome with two lesbians in “The Does” (1968), a moody psychodrama set in Saint-Tropez, France. One of the women was played by Audran, who was then married to the film’s director, Claude Chabrol.

Mr. Trintignant scored a huge success with “Sans motif apparent” (1971), as a detective on the Côte d’Azur. In “Other People’s Money” (1978), a film that won France’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar, he was a bank executive embroiled in a financial scandal. In 1983, he starred with Fanny Ardant in filmmaker François Truffaut’s closing credits, the tepid detective comedy “Confidentially Yours”, and had a small role in Nick Nolte’s film “Under Fire”, as a sleazy Frenchman. in the pay of the CIA in Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dictator Nicaragua.

M. Trintignant and Aimée reunited for Lelouch’s ill-fated update, “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later” (1986), but he fared better in “Three Colors: Red” (1994 ), the latest and most loved by directors. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy on capricious fate. Mr. Trintignant played a thorny, reclusive former judge who spies on his neighbors but is also capable of unexpected tenderness.

As Mr. Trintignant’s career slowed, he spent more time at his medieval estate near Uzès, in southern France, foraging for mushrooms and riding a motorbike. His second marriage, to filmmaker Nadine Marquand, ended in divorce, and in 2000 he married professional racing driver Marianne Hoepfner, his partner of decades.

Three years later he plunged into depression after a daughter from his second marriage, actress Marie Trintignant, died of injuries sustained in a beating by her lover, French rock star Bertrand Cantat, who was found guilty of manslaughter.

In addition to his wife, the survivors include a son from his second marriage, Vincent Trintignant.

Mr. Trintignant was still in shock at the loss of his daughter when the script for “Love” was offered to him. He told reporters he almost refused because he found it too depressing and that he “was in a really dark time in my life”, even contemplating suicide.

Producer Margaret Ménégoz persuaded him to take the role, joking that she would assist him in the act, if only he delayed the end of filming. Once the filming was over, Mr. Trintignant recalled to the Los Angeles Times, Ménégoz asked him: “Okay, how do we do it?”

“Well,” he replied, “let’s wait a bit.”

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