Michel Piccoli, who has died aged 94, was one of France’s leading actors, with some 200 films under his belt; thoughtful and expressive, he worked with nearly all the leading European directors of the second half of the 20th century from Alfred Hitchcock to Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and Luis Buñuel.
Though he was balding from a young age, Piccoli exuded a lean and saturnine masculinity, accentuated by an impressive pair of dark eyebrows, that imparted an edgy sensuality to his roles.
Piccoli received a grounding in the theatre with Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1940s and then with Jean-Marie Serreau’s Théâtre Babylone, the leading Left Bank stage of the 1950s. In one of his earliest films, Louis Daquin’s Le Point de Jour (1949), he played a coal miner, but he remained little known outside France until Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (“Contempt”, 1963).
In this he played a screenwriter selling his soul to work for a monstrously philistine US producer (Jack Palance) on a film adaptation of The Odyssey. The film focuses on his increasingly fraught and angry relationship with his wife (Brigitte Bardot), contemptuous of her husband for appearing to use her charms to ingratiate himself with the producer.
Over his career Piccoli played a wide range of roles, from a creepy club-owner who Jean-Paul Belmondo’s tough guy tries to frame for a cop killing in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (“The Stoolpigeon”, 1962), to an obsessed painter struggling to produce his masterpiece in Jacques Rivette’s Balzac adaptation La Belle Noiseuse (1991).
He had his biggest commercial success in Marco Ferreri’s infamous La Grande Bouffe (1973) as one of a group of gourmands who stuff themselves to death, and appeared in his fair share of turkeys, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage thriller Topaz, a rare foray into Hollywood.
Le Mépris, however, demonstrated his special gift for playing bourgeois characters wrestling with angst, unsatisfactory relationships, hypocrisy and alienation.
In Britain he was best known for his role in Luis Buñuel’s kinky 1967 masterpiece Belle de Jour, in which he played Husson, the sleazy and insinuating “best friend” of wealthy Paris surgeon Pierre (Jean Sorel), the husband of bored housewife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve).
Via a not entirely disinterested hint, Husson gives her the idea of taking an afternoon job in a brothel and later, after Pierre is shot and paralysed by her gangster lover, cruelly tells him the truth about his wife’s secret life.
Piccoli reprised the role almost 40 years later in Manoel de Oliveira ’s Belle Toujours (2006), in which Husson, now an elderly roué, catches sight of Séverine (now played by Bulle Ogier) after she sets various false trails and they have a candlelit dinner à deux, where she runs rings around the rusty seduction technique that worked 42 years earlier.
Jacques Daniel Michel Piccoli was born in Paris on December 27 1925 to parents who were musicians, his French mother a pianist and his Italian father a violinist.
Though his acting career began in the 1940s, his association with major directors took off after he was cast as a jealous lover in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan in 1955.
A year later Buñuel cast him as a priest trekking through the Brazilian jungle in Death in the Garden and he went on to appear in six more Buñuel films, including his role as Monsieur Monteil, leching after Jeanne Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), and a government minister in the surrealist The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which won the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars in 1973.
Piccoli became a stalwart of European art films and he worked with a roll call of great directors, including Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Jean Renoir and Claude Sautet; the Italians Marco Bellocchio and Marco Ferreri; Costa-Gavras of Greece and Luis Berlanga of Spain. In 1980 Piccoli won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as a judge in Bellocchio’s A Leap in the Dark.
He also directed three feature films, of which Alors Voilà (1997) won the Critics’ Prize at Venice, and in the 1980s briefly, though not very profitably, he turned producer.
He continued to act into his eighties. In Manoel de Oliveira’s Je Rentre à la Maison (“I’m Going Home”, 2001), the 75-year old Piccoli was affecting as a Parisian actor of great integrity whose family are all killed in a car accident; he is then horrendously miscast by a fawningly sinister John Malkovich as “stately, plump Buck Mulligan”, James Joyce’s Irish ne’er-do-well, in a film version of Ulysses, out of his depth struggling beneath a hideous wig and with the tricksy Joycean English.
In Nanni Moretti’s light comedy Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope, 2011) he was a humble, unassuming cardinal elected Pope, who is so overwhelmed that he “does a runner”, leaving the crowds in St Peter’s Square gazing at an empty balcony. A brilliant but atheist psychiatrist, played by Moretti, is brought in to help the Pope confront his fears.
In 2017 Piccoli published an autobiography, J’ai vécu dans mes rêves (“I Lived in my Dreams”).
Piccoli’s first two marriages, to the actress Eléonore Hirt and to the actress and singer Juliette Gréco, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, the screenwriter Ludivine Clerc, whom he married in 1978, by their adopted son and daughter, and by a daughter from his first marriage.
Michel Piccoli, born December 27 1925, died May 12 2020