Jean-Paul Belmondo had that rugged, devil-may-care charm; Alain Delon coupled an inhuman beauty with an extraterrestrial placidity; and Marcello Mastrioanni was the debonair personification of restless continental drifting. The era’s fourth foreign-film marquee-name male actor may not have projected the same testosteronized charisma or slim-suited elegance of his peers, but Jean-Louis Trintignant had a secret weapon up his tailored sleeve: He could channel a vast world of Euro-neuroses in every minimalized glance and what critic David Thomson termed his “basilisk stare.” Film Forum’s two-week, 19-movie series devoted to a sliver of the French actor’s mondo prolific career comes at an opportune moment, as Trintignant’s Cannes-coronated “comeback” film, Amour, opens just in time for the year-end awards season. The gift of gorging on the actor’s less-is-more work during several fertile periods of world-cinema awesomeness, however, would be welcome anytime.
A shy man by nature, Trintignant realized early on that moodiness was a good go-to mood for him—as evidenced by his breakthrough performance in …And God Created Woman (1956, Dec 18), with Trintignant playing the brooding husband to Brigitte Bardot’s small-town hussy. The actor’s mumbly, withdrawn turn offered a resonant respite from the film’s overbaked cheesecake; the role and a tabloid-ready affair with his sex-kitten costar upped his profile substantially. You can see films like the Italian melodrama Violent Summer (1959, Dec 13) grooming him for screen hunkdom by positing the actor’s draft dodger as a dreamboat. Again, Trintignant keeps adding shades of pensive anxiety to his lovelorn hero, proving that he wasn’t a next-gen Yves Montand so much as Monty Clift, sans Method histrionics.
Years of ho-hum, semisuccessful journeyman work followed, until Claude Lelouch’s pop Euro-pudding A Man and a Woman (1966, Dec 16 and 17) made him a bona fide international star. Suddenly, Trintignant had a chance to showcase his photogenic existential dourness on a bigger stage, in both down-and-dirty genre work (notably 1968’s The Great Silence [Sat 8], arguably the greatest spaghetti Western not made by Sergio Leone) and landmark art-house movies—1969 alone gave us Costa-Gavras’s groundbreaking political thriller, Z (Dec 14 and 15), and Eric Rohmer’s chat-sterpiece My Night at Maud’s (Dec 16 and 17). The series’s best rarity playfully combines both lowbrow and highbrow strains: Trans-Europ-Express (1967, Dec 18) appears, on the surface, to be just another pulpy spy flick. Then the actor is introduced wearing a fake beard while winking at the camera, and you know that the rule book is getting chucked out the window. Director and Nouveau Roman godhead Alain Robbe-Grillet proceeds to dive headfirst down the meta–rabbit hole, introducing three bigwig producers plotting out the very film-in-progress we’re watching. Their recipe for success: Cast Jean-Louis Trintignant in it.
And then there’s 1970’s The Conformist (Fri 7 and Sat 8), the actor’s personal favorite among his filmography. Bernardo Bertolucci said it was Trintignant’s ability to be “moving and sinister” that made him think of Jean-Louis for the part of Marcello, the repressed Fascist flunky caught up in history’s machinations and his own Freudian hang-ups. It’s impossible to imagine a more perfect match of a performer’s strength, a filmmaker’s sensibility and rich, complex material; that Film Forum is showing this towering achievement of ’70s cinema on a 35mm print only sweetens the deal. The opportunity to see The Conformist on the big screen is always a calendar-clearer, but the chance to witness Trintignant’s career in toto—from frowning male ingenue to éminence grise—makes the series nearly as invaluable as the man himself.
“Jean-Louis Trintignant” runs from Fri 7 though Dec 20 at Film Forum.
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