French actor Michel Bouquet dies at 96

(Paris) French comedian Michel Bouquet, who died on Wednesday at the age of 96, may have dreamed of dying on stage, like his favorite character in The king is dying by Eugène Ionesco, which he played no less than 800 times in 20 years.

Posted at 8:04 a.m.
Updated at 10:37 a.m.

Marie-Pierre FEREY
France Media Agency

After 75 years of career, the sacred monster of the theater, just as unforgettable in the films of directors Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, had told AFP in 2019 that he would no longer go back on stage, after having made his “man of way “.

This giant of the scene, a few years earlier, hoped “never to stop playing”.

On the big screen, he was an astonishing François Mitterrand on the evening of his life in The Champ-de-Mars walker by Robert Guédiguian (2004), with a mimicry that will disturb even those close to the former French president, and a masterful Javert in Wretched by Robert Hossein (1982).

Prolific, often enigmatic and disturbing, the actor had received numerous awards, including twice the César for best actor (the most important award in French cinema): in 2002 for the film by Anne Fontaine how i killed my fatherthen in 2006 for The Champ-de-Mars walker.

In the theater, he had twice won the Molière for best actor, including, in 2005, for The king is dyingthat he played with his wife Juliette Carré, formidable Queen Marguerite.

“At the service” of the author

Photo FRANK PERRY, Agence France-Presse archives

Michel Bouquet in The king is dying by Eugène Ionesco that he played no less than 800 times in 20 years.

He left his mark on post-war theater by making the work of Harold Pinter known in France and by putting himself at the service of great classical texts (Molière, Diderot or Strindberg) and contemporary texts (Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Albert Camus or Thomas Bernhard).

Clearly displaying his preference for the theatre, Michel Bouquet was nonetheless a brilliant film actor, endorsing often secretive and equivocal characters with great subtlety.

Her rather round silhouette, her discreet style and her deep voice, contradicted by a certain mischievousness in her gaze, offered her a wide range of roles.

He insisted that the actor was only “at the service” of the author: “the text, there is only the text. Everything comes from the author. The actor is only there to take the spectator’s hand and make him squeeze the author’s heart,” he said.

Born on November 6, 1925 in Paris, the son of an officer, Michel Bouquet had been sent with his brothers to boarding school, an experience that “terrorized” him.

He owes his taste for the spectacle to his mother who regularly took him to the Opéra Comique.

“Each time the curtain rose, there was no longer the horror of war […]the unreal world far exceeded the real world. It was the best lesson of my life,” he told AFP in 2019.

“A terrible anguish”

Photo ERIC FEFERBERG, Agence France-Presse archives

Michel Bouquet receives a Molière d’honneur in June 2014

Alternately apprentice pastry chef, dental mechanic, handler during his youth, he went one day to Maurice Escande, member of the Comédie-Française, who immediately offered him to take his lessons.

He went on stage in 1944, quickly becoming a companion of the playwright Jean Anouilh then of the actor Jean Vilar at the TNP (Théâtre national populaire) and at the Festival d’Avignon.

From 1947, he is also found in the credits of many films, but he will have to wait until the 1960s to gain notoriety.

His neutral and calm voice, his taste for ambiguity will do wonders in the films of Claude Chabrol who employs him in the roles of provincial notables, secrets and rogue. He forged a lasting bond with this director (The unfaithful wife, Chicken In Vinegar).

He also plays with François Truffaut some of his best films (The bride was in blackand 1967, and The Mississippi Mermaidin 1968).

He triumphs on stage with The king is dying which he played from 1994, then almost continuously from 2004 to 2014.

For him, playing was an intimate necessity more than a pleasure. “It’s a terrible anguish,” he said. “But it’s interesting. To experience something that you wouldn’t experience otherwise. We risk nothing, nothing, except to break our face”.

Macron hails a “sacred monster”

Photo ALBERTO PIZZOLI, Agence France-Presse archives

Michel Bouquet accompanies the film Renoir at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012.

President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday saluted the memory of Michel Bouquet, a “sacred monster” and an “unforgettable, irreplaceable master, for generations of actors”.

“For seven decades, Michel Bouquet burned the boards and punctured the screen. It is a sacred monster that has just left us,” wrote the presidency in a press release.

Mr. Macron also pays tribute to his “very high ideal of the profession of actor”, and salutes the one who will remain “an unforgettable, irreplaceable master, for generations of actors, among the greatest”.

“Michel Bouquet was an entirely embodied intelligence of the works, a scholarly but intensely lively exegesis,” continues the Élysée.

He “will have brought literature and dramatic art to their highest degree of incandescence and truth, by showing the human being in all his ambiguities and contradictions”.

“The President of the Republic and his wife send their saddened condolences to his wife, Juliette Carré, an immense actress who shared his life for six decades, to his family and friends, to all those of whom Michel Bouquet was the master, the inspiration or partner, and who today carry a part of his heritage,” the press release concludes.

Michel Bouquet in six films

white paws (Jean Gremillon, 1948)


Michel Bouquet in white paws

Michel Bouquet begins in the cinema with suspicion, until Jean Grémillon offers him a role written by Jean Anouilh in white paws in 1948.

He plays Maurice, a young marginal who uses his lover, Suzy Delair, to take revenge on his half-brother. With his thin silhouette, his dark eyes and his tortured game, he bursts the screen. In Actor’s memoryhe says he is “dazzled” by Jean Grémillon without whom he would never have pursued the adventure of cinema.

“He had a phenomenal knowledge of history, […] dared striking syntheses with an evocative power worthy of Shakespeare […] I was twenty years old. I was almost illiterate. Frequenting Jean Grémillon was a decisive trigger. I said to myself: “now you have to educate yourself (..) that you try to be less stupid, to understand the world too! “.

The unfaithful wife (Claude Chabrol, 1968)

Photo taken from IMDB

Stéphane Audran and Michel Bouquet in The unfaithful wife

With Claude Chabrol, whom he considered “his revealer”, Michel Bouquet made six films. In The unfaithful wifewritten especially for him, he plays the bourgeois assassin and becomes the archetype of the Chabrolian hero.

“In a way, he was playing for me, manipulating me. But admirably “, he confided about the director who has become his friend. “Here is a great actor’s director! Just with his camera, he brought intensity to my interpretation”.

With Truffault (The Mississippi Mermaid, The bride was in black) or Yves Boisset (A count), he specializes in disturbing characters.

Wretched (Robert Hossein, 1982)


Michel Bouquet in Wretched

In Wretched by Robert Hossein, he is Inspector Javert, the sleuth that Victor Hugo compares to a police dog who tirelessly pursues Jean Valjean, his prey.

“I don’t have Javert’s skin,” he defended himself to the director in 1982. “He fought for me to do it and by doing it, I got used to it. […] In the end, he may have been right to ask me. But it’s not a role that I particularly like.

Toto the hero (Jaco Van Dormael, 1991)


Michel Bouquet in Toto the hero

The Belgian director Jaco Van Dormaël offers him a role of grandiose failure in Toto the heroCésar for the best foreign film in 1992.

He plays Thomas, a retired surveyor, convinced of having been exchanged at the maternity ward with Alfred, his childhood neighbor, raised in a well-to-do family. Locked in this fantasy of a stolen existence, Toto, an unrepentant dreamer fixed in childhood, misses out on his life.

how i killed my father (Anne Fontaine, 2000)


Michel Bouquet in how i killed my father

It is “thanks to Anne Fontaine”, the only woman to have directed it, that Michel Bouquet confided that he finally understood cinema. “Did a woman need to obtain this delivery of a 75-year-old actor? “.

In how i killed my fatherhe plays a doctor father who reappears in the life of his son (Charles Berling) thirty years after having abandoned his family to treat the sick in Africa.

Without any sentimentality, the film deciphers the tragic lack of relationship between the two men. Both a real father and a fantasy father, Michel Bouquet is at the top of his game.

The Champ-de-Mars walker (Robert Guediguian, 2005)

Photo courtesy of Pathé Distribution

Michel Bouquet and Jalil Lespert in The Champ-de-Mars walker

In The Champ-de-Mars walker by Robert Guédiguian, he plays François Mitterrand, “falling into absolute solitude” two years before dying of cancer.

“There is a novel character in Mitterrand”, explained the actor.

“If the film is a fiction on Mitterrand, it is also a document on the art of Michel Bouquet”, affirmed Robert Guédiguian. “If it hadn’t been for Michel Bouquet, I don’t think I would have made the film. Michel Bouquet has a natural theatricality […] For this role, a majesty was needed […] “.

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