Michel Bouquet, award-winning French actor, dies at 96

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Michel Bouquet, award-winning French actor, dies at 96
One of his country’s great theater performers, he went on to appear in more than 100 films playing ordinary men whose surface blandness masked complex lives.

by William Grimes

NEW YORK, NY.- Michel Bouquet, a French actor whose talent for suggesting passion and turmoil beneath a bland, middle-class facade made him a favorite of new wave directors, died Wednesday in Paris. He was 96.

The Elysee Palace, the office of the French president, announced the death in a statement.

Bouquet, one of France’s great theater actors, found a special niche in film in the late 1960s and ’70s playing ordinary Frenchmen, somber and reserved, with complicated inner lives and deep reserves of emotion, a contrast heightened by his impassive, guileless face.

He played the lethally jealous husband in Claude Chabrol’s “Unfaithful Wife” (1969) and the advertising executive leading a double life in that director’s “Just Before Nightfall” (1971). He was one of Jeanne Moreau’s hapless victims in the François Truffaut film “The Bride Wore Black” (1968).

An actor of considerable range, Bouquet was equally at home in comedy and drama, and in sympathetic and unsympathetic roles, like the unsavory detective Comolli in Truffaut’s 1969 film “Mississippi Mermaid.”

Bouquet appeared in more than 100 films and won a new generation of admirers with his performance in 1991 as the older incarnation of the title character in “Toto the Hero.” His two best actor Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, came when he was in his 70s. The first was for his understatedly menacing performance in “How I Killed My Father” (2001), as a feckless parent who sows emotional chaos when he reenters his sons’ lives.

“He’s a greatly original actor,” Anne Fontaine, director of “How I Killed My Father,” said of Bouquet in an interview with The New York Times in 2002, noting that she had written the role with him in mind. “Even if he has a very relaxed and smiling air, there’s something in his acting that’s disconcerting, destabilizing, that provokes strangeness all the time.”

He sometimes described himself as “a calm anarchist.”

Bouquet won a second Cesar for his tour de force as François Mitterrand, the ailing French president, in “The Last Mitterrand” (2005).

“Charming, arrogant, childlike and teasing in turn, Bouquet offers up a master class in understated character acting, and delivers an indelible interpretation of a complex, infuriating man,” The Daily Telegraph of London wrote of that performance.

Michel Francois Pierre Bouquet was born Nov. 6, 1925, in Paris to Georges and Marie (Monot) Bouquet. His mother was a milliner. His father was an officer in the French army who was taken prisoner by the Germans soon after the invasion of France. To help support the family, Michel Bouquet worked as an apprentice to a pastry maker and as a bank clerk.

Encouraged by actor Maurice Escande, he began studying at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris. After appearing in a production of Albert Camus’ “Caligula,” he took his first major role in Jean Anouilh’s “Roméo et Jeannette.”

He went on to build a distinguished theatrical career, in which he was known especially for his work in plays by Molière, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco and Thomas Bernhard.

“This is a very lonely job, just like painting,” Bouquet told French newspaper Sud Ouest in 2011. “One does it in public, but the essence of it is secret.”

He made his first film appearances in 1947, as an assassin in “Criminal Brigade” and as a consumptive in “Monsieur Vincent,” a biography of St. Vincent de Paul. Two years later, he offered a hint of things to come in “Pattes Blanches,” based on a play by Anouilh, in which he portrayed a beaten-down aristocrat hopelessly infatuated with the young girlfriend of the local innkeeper.

He later provided the narrator’s voice in Alain Resnais’ landmark Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” (1956).

In 1965, Bouquet made the first of his half-dozen films with Chabrol, the campy secret agent film “The Tiger Smells Like Dynamite.” It was followed by his signature performances in “The Unfaithful Wife” and “Just Before Nightfall.”

Bouquet’s talents were ideally suited to Chabrol’s chilling explorations of love, violence and moral ambiguity. As Charles Desvallées, the jealous husband in “The Unfaithful Wife,” he seethed, schemed, suffered and eventually dispatched the lover of his wife, played by Stéphane Audran.

Bouquet’s marriage to Ariane Borg, an actor, ended in divorce. She died in 2007. In 1970, he married Juliette Carré, who survives him, according to the Elysee news release. Carré, also an actor, often appeared alongside Bouquet onstage.

Bouquet (who was not related to actor Carole Bouquet) continued to act well into his later years, appearing in Molière’s “Hypochondriac” on the stage in 2008 and in the films “La Petite Chambre” in 2010 (released as “The Little Bedroom” in U.S. theaters in 2014) and “The Origin of Violence” in 2016. In 2014, he was nominated for another best actor Cesar for his performance as the title character in “Renoir.”

He later received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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