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Jean-Louis Trintignant Dead at 91: French Legend Defined Art Cinema for Over 60 Years

He could do arthouse movies and Spaghetti Westerns. The actor's last performance was in 2019's "The Best Years of a Life."

Jean-Louis Trintignant pictured in Michael Haneke's 2017 film Happy End

Jean-Louis Trintignant in 2017’s “Happy End”

Jean-Louis Trintignant is dead at 91. The French actor assembled as diverse a career as any film performer of the second half of the 20th century, with a 60-year output that all but came to define arthouse cinema.

Just in the past decade, he broke cinephiles’ hearts with his devastating turn in Michael Haneke’s 2012 film “Amour,” in which he played a husband caring for his Alzheimer’s-suffering wife. Playing his spouse in that film was Emmanuelle Riva, herself one of the pioneering actors of the French New Wave. Their collaboration was perhaps the last truly great one of Trintignant’s career, in which so many partnerships resulted in deeply emotional artistry. Trintignant followed up “Amour” with another Haneke film, 2017’s “Happy End.”

Trintignant was an actor with matinee idol looks in his youth, but he always put the work before his own vanity. Just look at a fraction of the roster of filmmakers who directed him: Costa-Gavras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Abel Gance, Claude Chabrol, Claude Lelouch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francois Truffaut, André Téchiné, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jacques Audiard. He was as comfortable making films for Sergio Corbucci as he was for Eric Rohmer. And his last film came in 2019, “The Best Years of a Life,” directed by Lelouch, with whom he’d made six films, including the epochal 1966 “A Man and a Woman,” with its yé-yé score as much a gateway drug to French cinema as any French film of the ’60s. Chances are, even if you’ve never seen the movie and have no idea what it’s from, you’ve heard Francis Lai’s repeated five-note main theme.

“A Man and a Woman” made Trintignant an international star. It won the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and if you were an American college student studying French in the ’60s odds are you went to see it. The film made $14 million at the U.S. domestic box office — in 1966 dollars.

But Trintignant’s initial breakout had occurred 10 years earlier in the notorious “And God Created Woman…” which catapulted Brigitte Bardot and her husband, director Roger Vadim, to lusty worldwide fame. It was just his second film, after he’d moved to Paris at the age of 20 to pursue a career on stage. Trintignant had grown up in the small Provence town of Piolenc.

“And God Created Woman…” wasn’t about its men, though, so even if Trintignant became recognizable out of that film, his name was hardly marquee-worthy. Mandatory military service in Algiers further delayed his development. When he returned to acting, he got by making films in Italy nearly as often as in France. Dino Risi’s “Il Sorpasso” was an early star vehicle for him in 1962. And though he rarely worked in Hollywood or English-language cinema, he did make an Italian film, “Journey Beneath the Desert,” with Hollywood emigres Edgar G. Ulmer and Frank Borzage.

That facility with Italian film served Trintignant well as Spaghetti Westerns became one of the most bankable international genres in the late ’60s. After “A Man and a Woman” turned him into a star, he starred in gialli “I Am What I Am,” for Tinto Brass, and “Death Laid an Egg,” for Giulio Questi. Then he embarked on what fans of the genre consider one of the greatest of all Spaghetti Westerns, “The Great Silence,” for Sergio Corbucci.

In “The Great Silence,” Trintignant never utters a word: his character was rendered mute after having his throat slit as a child. But he survived and became a formidable gunslinger. He teams up with Vonetta McGee to avenge her husband, who had been killed by a white racist bounty hunter. Filmed in the Italian Dolomites, the movie takes place almost entirely in a landscape of heavy snowfall: it set the visual template for Corbucci obsessive Quentin Tarantino’s own “The Hateful Eight” nearly 50 years later.

Trintignant, despite his character’s skill, never comes across as a badass in “The Great Silence,” but a soulful, even Christ-like avenger. It showed his ability to turn pulp material into high art, turning a gimmick — never speaking — into something profoundly moving. Which makes the ending of this deeply sad movie all the more shattering.

Two years later he’d win Best Actor at Cannes for Costa-Gavras’s political thriller “Z.” And from there on out, it’d be a string of masterpieces any other actor would kill to have on their resume: “My Night at Maud’s” for Rohmer, a kind of capper to the French New Wave and the ’60s, and “The Conformist,” with its political, temporal, and sexual ambiguity kicking off the ’70s. His output remained startlingly consistent. Looking for him to be in a totem of the ’90s international arthouse? He’s in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Red.” From the ’80s, try just about his only American movie, “Under Fire,” about the Nicaraguan Revolution, in which he appeared opposite Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Ed Harris.

In 1986, he reteamed with Lelouch and his costar Anouk Aimée for “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later.” Then in 2019, he worked with them both again for the third film in the series, which continued the “A Man and a Woman” story from the two previous films: “The Best Years of a Life” would be Trintignant’s last film. It’s fitting: a sequel to the movie that catapulted him to celebrity would be the one to wrap up his body of work.

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