From Belle de Jour to Belle Toujours – My five favourite Michel Piccoli performances that you haven’t seen

Michel Piccoli

Michel Piccoli è Morto

To write about Michel Piccoli is a daunting task. His filmography lists more than 200 roles. He worked with so many essential directors; it’s impossible to name all of them. They were as distinctive as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jaques Rivette, Michel Deville, Alain Cavalier, Louis Malle, Claude Sautet, Jaques Doillon, and Leos Carax. And that’s only a fraction of the French helmers he worked with. There were also collaborations with international filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Marco Bellochio, Jerzy Skolimowski, Theo Angelopoulos, Ettore Scola, Yousef Chahine, and many others. Seven of his performances were in films by Marco Ferreri, including Dillinger è Morto.

The Early Years

Born in 1925, Piccoli commenced acting in the forties, in the theatre as well as in films. Early works with famous directors include Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) Buñuel’s La Mort en ce Jardin, the subsequent year, and Melville’s Le Doulos 1962. The sixties would be the decade of his breakthrough with roles such as Paul in Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), the creepy René in Costa-Gavras atypical thriller Compartiment Tueurs (1965) and above all the part as Henric Husson in Belle de Jour. (1967). The role of Husson, who introduces Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) to the world of prostitution, was one of several highlights in Piccoli’s career.

Almost four decades later, the actor would reprise his role, but for Manoel de Oliveira in Belle Toujours (2006). Altogether he would make six films with Luis Buñuel. Five films for Manoel de Oliveira counting the three minutes short Rencontre Unique (2007).

My five favourite Michel Piccoli roles

Les Créatures

In Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures, Piccoli gets a rare chance to show his more playful side. In the role of Edgar, he has to navigate a world where the rules of the game always seem to change without order or explanations. The actor doesn’t protect his character (he rarely did) but is more than game to dig into the challenges that Varda sets out for him, whether it involves talking to animals (where Piccoli provides the animals voices as well) or getting involved in random fights for no discernible reason.

Michel Piccoli Les Créatures
Michel Piccoli in Les Créatures.

La Femme en Bleu

Michel Deville’s reputation seems to be on the upswing now. That is a welcome revenge of sorts for a director who constantly made witty and engaging films, but rarely wore the Auteur badge on his sleeve. Outside France, he might be mostly known for his 1985 comedic thriller Péril en la Demeure, translated as “Death in a French Garden”. A fact that delighted Deville, since he was a big fan of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, which was released in France as “Meurtre Dans un Jardin Anglais”. Piccoli has a small but pivotal role in the film. but the one that I want to focus on is La Femme en Bleu (1973).

As the musician Pierre, Piccoli once again delves deep down into his character’s obsession, on this occasion caused by glimpsing the titular woman briefly. and then spending most of the film’s running time, trying to track her down. He even engages his mistress (Lea Massari) in the process, who actually bears a striking resemblance to the blue-clad woman he is looking for. Hardly a main character to root for, but nonetheless captivating.

Génealogies d’un Crime

Raoul Ruiz’s 1997 film, Généalogies d’un Crime is the bizarre story of a failed lawyer (Catherine Deneuve) who takes on difficult cases and repeatedly loses. She gets entangled with two rivalling psychiatrists played by Piccoli and the equally brilliant Andrzej Seweryn. A scene where the two argue in an outdoor cafe, seated at different tables, is particularly hilarious. Throughout the film George Didier, as Piccoli’s character is named, is constantly on the brink of madness, and will not stop at anything to prove his theories. It’s one of the more accessible works by Ruiz, without sacrificing any complexity.

Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve in Généalogies d’un Crime.

Belle Toujours and Je Rentre a La Maison

The above-mentioned film by Manoel de Oliveira is the second film of the Belle de Jour franchise. Almost 40 years after the events in the first film, Husson thinks he sees Séverine at a concert. He follows her, but she manages to avoid him. While trying to hunt her down, he frequents a bar where he engages in lengthy conversations with the bartender, played by Oliveira regular/relative Ricardo Trépa. Eventually, Husson manages to persuade Séverine to have dinner with him. One of the reasons is that she wants to find out what he whispered to her husband, all those years ago. Deneuve was approached but turned down the part, which instead is interpreted by Bulle Ogier.

This may be one of the best showcases of Piccoli’s charisma, besides Oliveira’s Je Rentre a La Maison (2001). The roles are short on dialogue, but the actor’s presence lends the films their necessary gravity. The funniest, and most poignant homage to Michel Piccoli, may be the tweet by Le Mépris costar, Brigitte Bardot. “Il avait du talent, de l’humour et il aimait mes fesses.”

The Creatures of Agnès Varda’s vision

The news of the death of Agnès Varda shouldn’t be surprising considering she was 90 years old. Still, there is a supreme sense of loss. What has been lost is a curious spirit who rarely appeared dogmatic, neither in her approach to cinema or feminism. Varda is often labelled as a Nouvelle vague director but was rather part of the, so-called, Left bank group, that also included Alain Resnais and Chris Marker among others.

When she made her first feature, La pointe courte (1955) she asked Resnais to do the editing. When he looked at the footage, he was very reluctant to do so, since he felt that Varda was doing similar things to him, but that she was way ahead. He finally gave in, however.  

Cléo and other creatures

The next feature was to become one of the directors’ most iconic films: Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) The expression cinq à sept in France generally refers to a meeting with a lover. In Varda’s film, however, we follow a self-centred singer, anxiously waiting for the result of her biopsy. We follow her walking around the city, meeting friends, and at the same time reflecting on the situation she is in, and how shallow integral parts of her life has been. As a funny interlude, she visits a cinema where she watches a silent short, featuring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, where the former makes fun of his trademark dark glasses.

Jean-Luc Godard Anna Karina Cléo de 5 a 7 Agnès Varda
Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina

However, I would like to focus on one of her lesser-known features, Les Créatures (1966). It was one of six co-productions that the Swedish company Sandrews made at the time. 1Among the other directors were Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Jacques Doinol-Valcroze and Alain Resnais.

Nineteen years later, the same company would refuse to import Sans toit ni loi (1985) also known as Vagabond, giving the reason that nobody would go and see it. It was finally released by the Swedish Film Institute. 2The French producer of the film was Mag Bodard who also passed away this year at the age of 103. She was one of the most prominent producers at the time, working with directors such as Bresson, Resnais, Jacques Demy, André Delvaux and others.

A critical and financial flop, Les Créatures stars Michel Piccoli as Edgar and Catherine Deneuve as Mylène, As the couple is riding in the car an accident occurs, that renders Mylène mute. Fortunately, we are not in Carnival of souls territory. Edgar is a writer and is working on a novel, using the inhabitants of their village as characters. The story concerns a scientist who can control the villager’s actions. Any further description would threaten to simplify this complex but also very playful film. With that said when the actual game of the film starts, it might be the film’s less stringent section.

Mon Oncle Alain Resnais

The opening credits feel like a Resnais film, in particular, Muriel made three years earlier. There are, however, more profound similarities between the two directors. Varda’s film doesn’t only point backwards but also anticipates later films by Resnais such as Providence (1977) and Mon oncle d’Amerique (1980) Two of the director’s major films, that in some quarters have been labelled “academic” and “dry” whereas they, in fact, are quite playful and humorous.

The same goes for Les Créatures. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to try to analyze the interweaving between truth and fiction, but it still wouldn’t do justice to the pure pleasure involved. Characters are manipulated in the game/story in the same way as Clive Langham manipulates his relatives in the draft for the book he is outlining in Providence. The abundance of crustaceans brings Mon oncle d’Amerique to mind, where, incidentally characters also seem to be directed by forces beyond their control.

Male vs Female creativity

That these manipulations are visualisations of the creative process goes without saying, but it seems that Varda is interested in her character’s growth as well, at least the female ones. Edgar doesn’t show much of development. He walks around the village, doing nothing or at least very little. Maybe that is why he, on occasion, speaks with animals.

On the other hand, the other creatures of Varda’s imagination seem actually to learn something about themselves. For instance, Michele Quellec (Ingmar Bergman regular, Eva Dahlbeck) who, unlike Cléo, doesn’t need a life-threatening disease to evaluate her life. Her relationship with a married man is not going the way she expects, and she learns to deal with it.

Agnès Varda

As mentioned above the film was something of a failure upon release (Cinémathèuqe director Henri Langlois said that people just didn’t get that it was “pure Meliès”) Varda managed to turn that lack of success into an installation piece called Ma Cabane de l’Échec. It consisted of a shack built with reels from the film. Varda referred to it as a “Shack of a recycled movie.” More can be read here ( in French) An unusual and good-natured way of handling a non-success.

Varda’s work has been underrated for years, but it seems her reputation has surged during this decade. There are plentiful of great works “cinecrit par Agnès Varda”.