French cinema legend Jean-Louis Trintignant dies aged 91

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French cinema legend Jean-Louis Trintignant has died at home early Friday in the Gard region of southern France at the age of 91. In 160 roles over a glittering 60-year career, the actor’s subtle, powerful performances and distinctive voice left an indelible mark on French and European cinema.

Like his co-stars Yves Montand, Alain Delon and Gérard Dépardieu, Trintignant forged an impressive career punctuated by now-classic roles and rose to fame beyond his native France: From his breakthrough performance in "And God created Woman” (1956) with Brigitte Bardot, to Claude Lelouch’s Palme d’Or winner “A Man and a Woman” (1966) opposite Anouk Aimée – who won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and earned an Oscar nod for her role – to “Amour” (2012), the global coup de coeur for which Trintignant won France’s César for Best Actor at the age of 82. Austrian director Michael Haneke’s end-of-life drama recalled Trintignant and co-star Emmanuelle Riva to longtime foreign admirers and won the pair new fans with five Oscar nods and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.

In the 1960s and 1970s, not a year went by without a great part for Trintignant. Working under Europe’s greatest directors, he worked deep into his eighties making two acclaimed Haneke features and another film which reunited him with Lelouch. His CV namechecks legends of le septième art: Claude Chabrol (“Les Biches”), Eric Rohmer (“My Night at Maud’s”), Claude Berri (“Je Vous Aime”) and François Truffaut (“Confidentially Yours”), to name just a few French master filmmakers. Trintingnant worked with illustrious Europeans, too: Dino Risi on the Italian comedy cult classic “The Easy Life” (1962), Ettore Scola (“La Terrazza”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Conformist”), Krzysztof Kieslowski (“Three Colours: Red”). His performance as an investigating magistrate in Costa Gavras’s celebrated political thriller “Z” earned Trintignant Best Actor honours at Cannes in 1969.

But whether the actor enjoyed his celebrity is another matter. Discreet, mysterious, inscrutable, an artist who hardly craved the red carpet, primetime interviews or magazine covers, Trintignant remained a reluctant star to the end.

“I was extremely shy. And fame never interested me. You know, it’s amusing the first time, but after that not at all. Why do they give us prizes? We are already well paid. They should instead give Oscars to folks who do work that isn’t fun,” Trintignant told Nice-Matin in a July 2018 interview announcing he was bringing his illustrious career to an end.

Incarnating tragedy for rapt audiences, Trintignant lived devastating real-life drama in the public eye. Twice married, he had two daughters and a son with director Nadine Trintignant. Their infant daughter Pauline died in 1970 while Jean-Louis Trintignant was on set filming “The Conformist” with Bertolucci. But it was the 2003 death of his daughter Marie, his “best friend” and an accomplished actress in her own right, that Trintignant would say destroyed him.

Her father’s sometimes stage and screen partner, Marie Trintignant was killed at the age of 41 while filming on location with her mother and brother Vincent in Lithuania. She suffered brain trauma during a violent row with boyfriend Bertrand Cantat, lead singer of French rock band Noir Désir. Cantat was convicted in her death and served four years behind bars. The rocker has since attempted a series of returns to the limelight, but time and again his concerts have met with public backlash. “I died on August 1, 2003, the day Marie died. Inside of me, all is destroyed,” Jean-Louis Trintignant told author Catherine Ceylac for a book released in March 2018.

Trintignant’s familiar voice will linger in his cinematic oeuvre, but his warm timbre resonated on the stage, too, the accomplished theatre actor channelling Shakespeare, Jean Giraudoux, Tennessee Williams, Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon and Yasmina Reza for audiences in Paris and Avignon.

For children, particularly the generation of youngsters now in their forties, Trintignant’s voice brought Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s aviator narrator to life on a much beloved 1972 vinyl recording of “The Little Prince”.

In an altogether different vein, movie goers also associated Trintignant’s voice with Jack Nicholson’s sinister mien in “The Shining”, for which the Frenchman served as the American star’s language double, a star stand-in for his Hollywood counterpart.

One of the last scenes the actor offered the cinema was not its most cheerful: The image of a wheelchair-bound Trintignant letting a troubled sea wash over him in Haneke’s 2017 Cannes selected, ironically named “Happy End”. Playing a withered cantankerous patriarch, Trintignant was 86 and knew he had cancer. Despite failing health, or in defiance of it, his performance was affecting – impressive by the unsparing look in his eye and by that magnificent voice, impervious to the ravages of time or illness.

But Trintignant had one more role up his sleeve – starring in “The Best Years of a Life” (2019), Lelouch’s sequel to “A Man and a Woman”, a Cannes highlight that reunited Trintignant with Aimée. Trintignant’s trademark tenderness was on display as his character’s vivid recollections of the long-ago love affair penetrated the fog of dementia.

Trintignant’s voice now has alas been silenced. But in a six-decade body of work that made its mark on the history of European cinema, it lives on.

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