Jean-Louis Trintignant, a preeminent French actor of subtle power who appeared in some of the most celebrated European films of the past 50 years, including Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”, Eric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” and Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman,” died Friday at his home in the south of France, aged 91.
His wife, Marianne Hoepfner Trintignant, confirmed the death to Agence France-Presse. Mr Trintignant had announced in 2018 that he had prostate cancer and was retiring.
mr. Trintignant seemed to specialize in playing the flawed Everyman and slowly revealing the depths of his characters.
“Jean-Louis Trintignant has been one of the movies’ great stealth actors for over half a century,” critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in DailyExpertNews in 2012. “He knows how to subconsciously capture an audience.”
The trigger was the release that year of Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’, which won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. For the first time in the millennium, Mr Trintignant, then nearly blind, played a frail old man caring for his dying wife, played by Emmanuelle Riva — “two titans of French cinema,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The Times — in a film that is both a love story and a grim exploration of disease and mortality.
It was the culmination of a rich career playing a gallery of characters who were rarely glamorous. Mr. Trintignant was an emotionally vulnerable fascist in “The Conformist” (1970); a timid, conscientious graduate student who accidentally comes into contact with a sassy hedonist in Dino Risi’s 1962 “Il Sorpasso” (“The Easy Life”); and an oppressed Roman Catholic from the provinces who resists the seductive advances of a beautiful divorcee in “My Night at Maud’s” (1969).
“If some people laugh because I didn’t have sex with Maud, I’d rather be ridiculed than considered a hero,” Trintignant said in a 1970 interview with The Times. “Even kissing scenes bored me.”
In 1969 he won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance as a magistrate investigating the murder of a Greek politician in Costa-Gavras’ political thriller ‘Z’, which also won the Oscar for a Foreign Language that year.
For the American public, Mr. Trintignant not with the conventional images of French film stars, such as the wisecracking Jean-Paul Belmondo, the working-class hero Jean Gabin or the friendly, refined Maurice Chevalier. He was more subdued.
“The best actors in the world,” he once said, “are the ones who feel the most and show the least.”
Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant was born on December 11, 1930 in Piolenc, a small town in southeastern France, where his father, Raoul, was a wealthy industrialist and local politician. Jean-Louis seriously considered becoming a racing driver like his uncle Maurice Trintignant, a top competitor in the 1950s and 1960s who was only 13 years older than Jean-Louis. (Another uncle, Louis Trintignant, also raced and was killed in 1933 when his car crashed.)
Jean-Louis went to law school instead, assuming he would follow his father into politics. But while studying law in Aix-en-Provence, he attended a performance of Molière’s “The Miser” and was so impressed that he decided to pursue a stage career.
Trintignant moved to Paris to study acting and started acting in theater productions at the age of 20. After touring France in the early 1950s, he was hailed as one of the country’s most gifted young stage actors and was soon offered film contracts.
In Roger Vadim’s 1956 film “And God Created Woman”, Mr. Trintignant as a young, naive husband who is in love with his devilishly flirtatious wife, played by Brigitte Bardot (Mr. Vadim’s wife at the time) in what is her breakthrough sex-kitten role. True or not, there were rumors that she and Mr. Trintignant were having a real affair during the filming. Mrs. Bardot’s marriage to Mr. Vadim ended in 1957.
mr. Vadim nevertheless cast Mr. Trintignant in the 1959 film “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” an adaptation of a sexually scandalous 18th-century novel about a scheming noblewoman. Mr Trintignant had the lesser but romantic role of the charming Chevalier Danceny, a music teacher for the French nobility.
The Académie Française, the official arbiter of French culture, denounced the film as “desecration of a classic” and condemned it as lascivious from Roman Catholic pulpits on both sides of the Atlantic.
mr. Trintignant shared the lead role with Vittorio Gassman in ‘Il Sorpasso’, widely regarded as Mr. risk. He played a shy law student who is seduced by the libidinous extrovert Mr. Gassman and embarks on a heady car journey through the Italian countryside that ends tragically.
Even more memorable was the performance of Mr. Trintignant eight years later in ‘The Conformist’. Based on a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, the film is a chilling psychological portrait of a secret policeman in Fascist Italy. mr. Trintignant, in the lead role, arranges the murder of his old friend, a left-wing college professor, whose young wife he covets.
mr. Trintignant took on his most romantic role, as a race car driver, in “A Man and a Woman” (1966). The film was an international hit, generating more box office receipts than any previous French film. He said his early passion for racing — and a deep knowledge of the sport his uncles imparted to him — made his achievements particularly believable.
But he claimed he felt uncomfortable in the film’s explicit love scenes, in which his co-star was Anouk Aimée, an old friend of his then-wife, the director Nadine Trintignant.
“It was embarrassing to be in bed with a woman like that,” he told The Times in 1970. “I had known Anouk for ten years and she was Nadine’s best friend, and the whole crew was watching.” The best scenes of the film, Mr. Trintignant emphasized, were its hairpin turns in Monte Carlo.
He then appeared in an average of three films a year for the next three decades, more often as a supporting actor than as a lead actor.
An exception was the acclaimed 1994 film ‘Red’, the final of the trilogy ‘Three Colors’ by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. In a work that follows the parallel lives of a group of people outside Geneva, Mr. Trintignant, a cold-hearted retired judge who spied on his neighbors using high-tech surveillance equipment.
He also continued to perform on stage from time to time.
Later in his life, Mr. Trintignant returns to his early passion for sports car racing, he competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1980 and the Monte Carlo Rally in 1984. In the 1990s, he spent much of his time tending a vineyard that he operated in southern France or acting. His return to film in “Amour” came after an absence of more than a decade.
Mr Trintignant’s first marriage to the actress Stéphane Audran ended in divorce. He married Nadine Marquand, then actress, in 1960 and had three children with her: Vincent, now a director; Pauline, who died at a young age; and Marie, a successful actress (she had co-starred with her father at age 4 in “Mon Amour, Mon Amour,” directed by her mother) and the mother of four who was beaten to death in her hotel room at age 41. in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the summer of 2003 while filming there.
The murder was a sensation in the European press. The 39-year-old friend of Mrs. Trintignant, Bertrand Cantat, one of France’s biggest rock stars, later admitted in a Lithuanian court that he beat her out of jealous rage over her plans to go on vacation with an ex-husband.
He was convicted of manslaughter in 2004 and released on parole in 2007, much to the anger of the Trintignant family and its supporters.
After Marie’s death, Mr. Trintignant in severe depression.
“I didn’t speak for three months,” he told the Montreal newspaper The Gazette in 2012. “Then I realized I had to stop living, kill myself, or keep living.”
In 2011, he withdrew from a scheduled one-man show at the Avignon summer festival in France when he learned that Mr. Cantat would also appear at the festival in an acting role on stage.
Mr Trintignant’s marriage to Nadine Trintignant ended in divorce in 1976. He married Marianne Hoepfner, a racing driver, in 2000. Information about other survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Trintignant’s eyesight deteriorated in his later years, but he accepted his condition. “We weren’t supposed to live more than 80 years,” he told The Gazette. “It’s not all that bad. I’m still happy when I’m alone. I have an inner life.”
Even at the height of his popularity, Mr. Trintignant full that acting was always a struggle.
“I’m not a born actor,” he said in the 1970 Times interview. “Even today I’m not an instinctive actor. I prepare meticulously and only when I’m in front of the camera do I become completely free.”