Coolly cerebral and internal where French New Wave peers Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon leaned toward the physical and intense, Jean-Louis Trintignant enjoyed a five-decade career as an actor in some of arthouse cinema's most acclaimed films, from "And God Created Woman" (1956) and "A Man and a Woman" (1966) to "Z" (1969), "Three Colors: Red: (1994) and "Amour" (2012). His languid features and economical performing style earmarked him for young romantics, which he personified in Claude Lelouch's international success "A Man and a Woman." But Trintignant resisted pigeonholing, preferring instead to play complicated, challenged figures on both sides of the law in dozens of political dramas and crime dramas during the late 1960s and early 1970s, most notably "The Conformist" (1970), as a faceless factotum who traded his basic values for social acceptance. His international profile faded in the 1980s, but he enjoyed returns to prominence with Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red" (1994) and Michael Haneke's "Amour" (2012). Though never a major international star, Trintignant's vast and critically revered body of work made him one of the most respected actors of the 20th century on both sides of the pond.
Born Dec. 11, 1930 in the southeastern French commune of Piolenc, Jean-Louis Trintignant was the son of industrialist Raoul Trintignant and his wife, Claire, as well as the nephew of famed racecar drivers Louis and Maurice Trintignant. He relocated to Paris in 1950 to study drama before touring the country in various theater productions. Trintignant's first screen appearance came in the 1955 short "Pechineff," which was followed by supporting roles in features. His breakthrough came in Roger Vadim's "And God Created Woman" (1956), which cast him as the naïve young scion of a shipping family who succumbed to the charms of nubile waif Brigitte Bardot. An international success as well as a scandal for its frank sexuality, the film minted Trintignant as a star in the making, but his ascent was interrupted by mandatory military service, which took him away to Algiers. Upon his return from duty, Trintignant considered abandoning acting, but an offer to play Hamlet in Paris sparked his interest anew. From there, he played supporting and occasional lead roles for an impressive variety of top directors, including a reunion with Vadim for "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (1956), Abel Gance's historical epic "Austerlitz" (1960) and Georges Franju's "Spotlight on a Murderer" (1961).
The following year, he enjoyed a major Continental hit with "La Sorpresso" ("The Easy Life," 1962), a male-bonding drama with Vittorio Gassman that spawned a sequel, "Il Successo," in 1963. The next few years offered Trintignant steady if unremarkable work until 1965's "The Sleeping Car Murders," which marked the beginning of his collaborations with Greek director Costa Gavras. The following year, he rocketed to international stardom with Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman" (1966). Trintignant drew on his family's racing experience to play a Les Mans driver grieving the loss of his wife from suicide who entered into a hesitating relationship with widow Anouk Aimée. The deeply moving romance won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, among numerous other honors, and claimed the highest box office gross for any French film in the international market. More importantly, it marked Trintignant as a leading man whose wounded heart was the core of his appeal.
Trintignant avoided mass-market film projects for the next few years, preferring more eclectic fare like Claude Chabrol's "Les Biches" (1968), which cast him as the focal point of a love triangle with Stephane Audran, who was Trintignant's first wife prior to their divorce, after which she married Chabrol in 1964, and Jacqueline Sassard. More offbeat projects like the psychedelic Italian thriller "Death Laid an Egg" (1968), the spaghetti Western "The Great Silence" (1968), which cast him as a mute gunslinger, and Pasquale Festa Campanile's erotic drama "The Libertine" (1969), which helped to replace his romantic leading man identity with a more ambiguously moral screen persona which would soon come to define many of his screen roles. An exception to this new role came with "Z" (1969), his third collaboration with Costa-Gavras, who cast him as a Greek magistrate investigating the assassination of a politician (Yves Montand) by a military junta. The Oscar-nominated film not only provided Trintignant with his third international hit, but also the Best Actor prize from the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.
But for much of the 1970s, Trintignant worked in darker territory, again for some of the best directors in the world. He reaped widespread critical acclaim as a bureaucrat in Mussolini's government who sacrificed his values and identity to gain a normal life in Bernardo Bertolucci's hit "The Conformist" (1970), then played icy criminals in Lelouch's "Le Voyou" ("The Crook") (1970) and Jacques Deray's "The Outside Man" (1973), which provided him with a rare opportunity to film in America. Philippe Labro's "Sans Mobile Apparent" ("Without Apparent Motive") (1971) cast him as a police detective with intimate connections to a series of violent, seemingly unrelated murders, while "The Train" paired him with Romy Schneider as a Frenchman who fell for a German Jew fleeing the Nazis, respectively. Trintignant also made his directorial debut that same year with "Une Journee bien remplie" (1973), about a baker who dispatched the jurors who sentenced his son to execution.
Trintignant's characters grew more malefic as the decade progressed, from a rapist in "Love at the Top" (1974) to a killer in the thriller "Flic Story" ("Cop Story") (1975), though fewer of these efforts made it to American theaters. He enjoyed a comeback in 1978 with the Cesar-winning "L'argent des autres," in which he played a bank official framed by his superiors for a scandal. He then settled into an exceptionally prolific period of film appearances that included "Confidentially Yours" (1983), the final directorial effort for Francois Truffaut, and his first English-language film, "Under Fire" (1983). Trintignant reunited with Lelouch and Anouk Aimée for "A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later" (1986), though the results failed to recapture the magic of the original. He returned to minor films until 1994's "Three Colors: Red" (1994), the final film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, as well as the final screen effort prior to his death in 1996. Trintignant received considerable praise for his work in the film as a retired judge who eavesdropped on his neighbors. After playing an elderly version of Mathieu Kassovitz's character in the equally well-regarded "A Self Made Hero" (1996), Trintignant reduced his screen appearances to concentrate on theater work. He subsequently suffered a tremendous personal tragedy in 2003 when French singer Bertrand Cantat killed his daughter, actress Marie Trintignant, in a hotel room in Lithuania. He returned to film acting at the age of 81 as a retired music teacher whose wife (Emmanuelle Riva) suffered a debilitating stroke in director Michael Haneke's "Amour" (2012). The film claimed numerous European film awards, including the Palme d'Or from the 65th Cannes Film Festival, while Trintignant received a Best Actor nomination from the European Film Awards.
By Paul Gaita