Jean-Louis Trintignant is one of those actors whose long and illustrious career went from strength to strength into his old age. Today’s audiences are likely to know him for Amour, directed by Michael Haneke in 2012, in which, at the age of 81, he played a man who lovingly cares for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva) as she struggles with Alzheimer’s. He gained a César for it, adding to numerous earlier accolades.
In his sixties, Trintignant also graced a string of great European films, including Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994) and A Self-Made Hero (Jacques Audiard, 1996), in which his weathered face and distinctive voice delineated troubled and ambiguous patriarchs. Yet we need to go back to his beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s to appreciate the innovative representation of masculinity he brought to the cinema.
The son of bourgeois parents in the south of France, Trintignant quickly made his way to Paris to attend film school and take acting lessons. His directing ambitions would not come to much (he directed two quickly forgotten films in 1973 and 1979), and it is as an actor on stage and especially in film that he made his mark. After four unmemorable film parts he struck lucky in 1956 opposite Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, directed by Roger Vadim, the film that sensationally projected her to stardom overnight. In Saint-Tropez, all men are frantic about Juliette (Bardot), but she only has eyes for Antoine (Christian Marquand), who despises her. On the rebound, she marries his younger brother, the shy Michel (Trintignant), eventually falling in love with him. If the Bardot revolution was to portray a woman who acts out her own desire, his was to signal a new type of quiet virility – sexy and romantic.
Neither tall and muscular (like Jean-Paul Belmondo) nor stunningly good-looking like Alain Delon, Trintignant, who judged his own looks “a bit grim”, was closer to the more ambiguous, less macho New Wave heroes. His charm was discreet, turning his legendary shyness into a strength, especially when his face lit up with his magnificent smile. He was a romantic, interested in women beyond sexual conquest. Meanwhile, his sex-appeal was confirmed by his short-lived but passionate off-screen liaison with Bardot, for which both of them left previous partners: she, Vadim and he, his first wife Stéphane Audran.
Throughout the 1960s, Trintignant played shy types, sometimes manipulated by cynical figures, as in Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons (1959) or Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962), but more often he was a romantic lover/husband, as in Mon amour, mon amour (directed by his second wife Nadine Trintignant in 1967) and, of course, in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a massive hit in 1966, which picked up a Palme d’Or and an Academy Award. In this, the forerunner of French romantic comedy, he and Anouk Aimée fall in love on a deserted beach in Deauville over Francis Lai’s famous ‘cha-ba-da-ba-da’ tune. His virility nevertheless is signalled by his passion for race cars, corresponding to the actor’s own taste (in 1980 he competed at Le Mans; two of his uncles were race drivers, as was his third wife, Marianne Hoepfner, whom he married in 2000).
The appeal of the ‘mythic’ couple of A Man and a Woman was such that Lelouch recreated it twice, in 1986 with A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later and in 2019 with The Best Years of a Life, the actor’s penultimate film. But in this tender vein many may prefer to remember another mythic couple, with Françoise Fabian in Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud in 1969.
Trintignant was not, however, limited to romantic parts. From the early 1960s he also specialised in politically ambivalent or downright malevolent characters in Le Combat dans l’île (Alain Cavalier, 1962), Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969), The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), The Plot (Yves Boisset, 1972), Flic Story (Jacques Deray, 1975) or La Banquière (Francis Girod, 1980). Yet the amorous figure was never far away, as he was often paired with beautiful partners such as Romy Schneider, Dominique Sanda and Catherine Deneuve, an identity summed up in the very title of the poignant Amour.
Tragedy touched Trintignant’s life twice. In 1969 he and Nadine lost their second child, Pauline, to cot death; she directed a film about it, It Only Happens to Others (1971) starring Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni (the Trintignants subsequently had a son, Vincent, born 1973). Then, in 2003 his daughter Marie, his eldest child with Nadine, was shockingly murdered by her partner, the rock singer Bertrand Cantat. To cope with the trauma, Trintignant went back on stage, reading poetry with great success.
But through his films he will remain the discreet seducer of his youth, with the irresistible smile and, as Françoise Fabian put it, the “very sexy voice, which made him magic”.
- Jean-Louis Trintignant, 11 December 1930 to 17 June 2022