“The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least.” — Jean-Louis Trintignant

It’s his birthday today.

My first encounter with the intriguing, mysterious (and yet somehow still vulnerable) Jean-Louis Trintignant, was seeing The Conformist at The Music Box in Chicago, circa mid-90s. I was completely unfamiliar with him. Even just the look of his face pinned me to the spot, never mind all of the OTHER riveting visual things going on in that film. The entryway is his face. And WHAT a face.

In The Conformist, his chilly and yet sensual face, was a fascist face. An in-the-closet face. His beauty was a mask hiding political rot
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It would take a long time for me to piece together the rest of his extraordinary career. He worked with everyone. He was different. Special. Remote, eloquent, sharp, withheld. With that FACE.

He was so handsome that his face is practically “come-hither” in its beauty and sculpting. You lean in. You are drawn to it. The full lips, the sharp angles. But the face was closed-off too, a smooth marble mask. A perfect face for the movies. He was handsome AND beautiful. Rare. Like Gary Cooper.

Here he is in Costa-Gravas’ Z, as the incorruptible magistrate, for which he won Best Actor at Cannes. Being incorruptible in the middle of near-total corruption is an extraordinary feat (especially when you consider the performance in The Conformist, its opposite). In Z, he is indomitable. Tenacious. Smileless. Hard to imagine him even cracking a smile at a joke. Not a man to be fooled with. A thorn in everyone’s side. Trintignant doesn’t come into Z until the second half, but once he enters, everything changes. Army generals quake. Panic ensues. A government falls.

For a full overview of Trintigant’s career, the piece you need to read is my friend Dan Callahan’s. Here’s Dan on The Conformist:

No one who has seen this film can forget the gloating yet uncertain look on Trintignant’s face in the back of the car at the end, when Dominique Sanda is crying for him to help her. We can see that he knows he is damned, yet there is a part of him that is frozen, too, unable to respond. His character is missing that component of empathy for others, or it was destroyed or taken from him (this point can be argued). He seems to be thinking, “Does it matter?” And the answer is: yes and no, or perhaps. Alas! Like many of the major screen actors who were only at their best for certain directors, Trintignant is on the fence emotionally and intellectually, and the process of watching him sort that out will always be exciting, sexy, chilling, and dismaying.

Trintignant’s was a major career. He started with Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman in 1956, playing husband to Brigitte Bardot. There was Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, and – almost 20 years later – Red, a “chapter” in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s color trilogy. He worked with René Clément, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, so many others. Most recently, he appeared – heartbreakingly – opposite Emmanuelle Riva, in Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film – and was nominated for Best Film period – and scored nominations in the Directing, Screenplay, and Best Actress categories.

I wrote about Amour for The Dissolve’s special feature on the best films of the 2010s (sadly, The Dissolve – an excellent site – has vanished from the internet). Here’s my entry on Amour.

Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning film Amour is the story of Georges and Anne, an elderly couple played by the great Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and their experiences following Anne’s debilitating stroke. A careful, meticulous examination of mortality, intimacy, and loss, Amour is the rare film with the patience and courage to stare unblinkingly at the process of aging and impending mortality. Amour does not tell its story with sweeping violin strings. The emotion comes honestly (and devastatingly) through Haneke’s commitment to small details: how the frail Georges manages his caretaking duties, how Anne’s body begins to fail bit by bit, how their adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) cannot deal with what is happening. All this is anchored by the performances from the two leads, so intimate with each other it’s easy to believe they’ve been together for decades. Georges and Anne made mutual promises long ago, and they continue to keep them. It was probably inconceivable to them that they would ever be this old. And yet they are, and reality must be faced; the promises remain, and they must be honored. As painful as Amour is, it’s also a redemptive story of love and marriage. It looks where most people don’t want to look, and it isn’t afraid.

Trintignant worked almost until the very end. He passed away in 2022 at the age of 91.

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