When Michel Bouquet died, on 13 April 2022, France lamented the passing of one of its great stage stars, a monstre sacré who had kept working into his old age, like his beloved Molière. Indeed, his last great role in the theatre – in 2017 at the age of 92 – was in Molière’s Tartuffe, where he played the deluded patriarch Orgon, while the title role went to the flamboyant Michel Fau, one of Bouquet’s many students and admirers. Outside France, Bouquet is better known for his distinguished, if somewhat idiosyncratic, film career, including several films directed by Claude Chabrol in the 1970s, where his deceptively discreet performance enhanced dark, embittered and sometimes downright sinister characters.
Bouquet developed a passion for the theatre as an adolescent, after an austere childhood marked by boarding school (which he hated), a distant father and the war. His mother however took him to the theatre, which dazzled him, and he later blossomed at the Conservatoire. From then on, he devoted his life to the stage, both the classics (Shakespeare, Molière) and modern authors such as Jean Anouilh, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. His method was to put his talent entirely to the service of the text, something he did with sober, almost self-effacing performances, in tune with his ‘banal’ physique, yet with a highly recognisable voice. He was an ‘acteur à voix’, as the French say, which is attested by the impressive amount of work he also did on the radio.
Although he started appearing regularly in film as early as 1947 and on television from 1959, Bouquet first made his mark on screen with his role as Coral, one of the men that Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) assassinates to avenge the murder of her husband in François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968). The episode encapsulates his talent. He plays a faintly repulsive man who lives on his own in a dingy hotel room where he is seduced and then poisoned by Kohler who watches coolly as he writhes in agony on the floor. In the space of the 15-minute episode, Bouquet conveys all at once the mediocrity of the man’s existence and his debased nature; we are repelled by him and yet feel sorry for him.
The following year, Truffaut cast him as a private detective in La Sirène du Mississipi (1969), a small yet significant part in which again the actor managed to make a rather despicable character interesting. There followed his most famous films, a trilogy directed by Claude Chabrol in which this time he had lead roles. In La Femme infidèle (1969), La Rupture (1970) and Juste avant la nuit (1971) Bouquet plays opposite the glamorous Stéphane Audran (called Hélène in each case). He embodies, in turn, a jealous husband who kills his wife’s lover, a malevolent father-in-law and a guilt-ridden husband who murders his mistress. Chabrol’s favourite theme, the satire of the post-May 68 French bourgeoisie, finds its perfect incarnation in Bouquet – soft-spoken and impeccably dressed in a world of refined apartments and Citroën-DS cars, with dysfunctional family relations, sexual perversion and murderous impulse bubbling just under the surface.
Bouquet’s career then branched out into a line of great political thrillers. The Cop (Yves Boisset 1970), the most famous, set the tone for the actor, whose minimalist performance brilliantly rendered the moral and political ambiguities that characterised the genre – there he was, with the faint, sardonic smile of his thin lips and the mere hint of a twinkle in his eyes. Others followed, notably Plot (Boisset, 72), as well as more traditional policiers. In Two Men in Town (José Giovanni, 1973) he stalks the film’s heroes played by Jean Gabin and Alain Delon, prefiguring his celebrated incarnation of Javert, obsessively pursuing Jean Valjean (Lino Ventura) in Robert Hossein’s version of Les Misérables (1982). In 1985 he worked with Chabrol again in the more light-hearted Cop au vin.
During the last decades of his career, Bouquet kept busy on stage and on screen, while a few outstanding roles finally brought him prominent critical recognition. In 1991, he was an old man looking back on his life in the quirky Belgian film Toto the Hero (Jaco van Dormael), for which he received several prizes. His last important film roles also cast him as enigmatic patriarchs: a disturbing father in Anne Fontaine’s How I Killed My Father (2001), for which he won his first César and the late Socialist president in Robert Guédiguian’s 2005 The Last Mitterrand (his second César) and finally the title role in Renoir (Gilles Bourdos, 2012), a biopic of the artist in his last years.
Bouquet’s longevity in part stemmed from the fact that when he made his mark in film he already looked middle-aged. While he played iconic parts and at times great men, like Michel Simon before him he was not afraid of putting his talent to the service of a string of ‘ordinary’ or even unpleasant characters. Yet he remained highly popular, his charismatic presence imbuing his parts with both mystery and wisdom.
- Michel Bouquet, 6 November 1925 to 13 April 2022