Michel Bouquet, the cinema loved its ambiguity


The 1970s were his golden age. He excelled at Chabrol, as a vain notable. Yves Boisset made him a definite scoundrel, but it was Truffaut who offered him his first fine roles. He was already forty years old.

We discover Michel Bouquet in white paws (1949), by Jean Grémillon, lanky, almost bony. He is already in revolt against his mother, his social class and the disgusting old man who, in this isolated corner of Brittany, passes off as a relative the alluring creature he raised in town… But the cinema does not like not too Michel Bouquet, at that time: it must be said that his austere physique, despite ardent eyes à la Antonin Artaud, did not impress the screen. A few extra pounds and years – he is now 40 – the camera adopts him and begins to love him. François Truffaut, who would never dare to make him a headliner, nevertheless offered him two superb supporting roles: in The bride was in black, where he interprets the shy withdrawn woman who takes revenge on Jeanne Moreau. And especially in The Mississippi Mermaid (1969) where he plays the detective that Jean-Paul Belmondo hires, without knowing that he is trapping himself. Some critics will regret, after the commercial failure of the film, that he did not play the main role, much closer than Belmondo to the character imagined by William Irish in his novel…

Reflection of these sated and satisfied bourgeois

It is therefore not Truffaut, but Claude Chabrol who will impose it on the screen. After a few semi-givers (The Tiger perfumes himself with dynamite, 1965; The Corinth Road, 1967), he made it the symbol of France in the Pompidou region which he hated and despised: a reflection of those satiated and satisfied bourgeois whom he knew only too well and whom he had feared, all his life, to become. In The Unfaithful Wife (1969), Bouquet is a notable who kills his wife’s lover. But this act which he commits out of vanity, because, in his environment, a cheated man is despicable, will, paradoxically, bring him closer to his wife – suddenly admiring! – and free him from his own baseness. In Just before dark (1971), on the other hand, it is he who cheats on his wife, suppresses his mistress, but, unable to assume it, persists in wanting to confess his crime. It’s almost a Christian film – and, dare we say it, Dostoyevskian – about the weight of remorse and the irresistible call of confession that Chabrol shoots. But, of course, he becomes enraged as soon as it is pointed out to him: for him, this mocking tragedy is only as good as the helplessness of his sad hero in the face of an entourage that drives him to secrecy and oblivion…

Michel Bouquet in “Just before nightfall”, by Claude Chabrol (1971).

Films of the Boetie

In this diptych, Bouquet, almost ghostly, is the perfect spokesperson for the filmmaker. It is his ideal foil. His darling Turkish face. In Chicken In Vinegar – their last meeting, in 1984 –, Chabrol imagines a scene where Jean Poiret (Inspector Lavardin) repeatedly plunges the head of Michel Bouquet (the infamous Lavoisier) into a sink in order to drown his vanity and his sufficiency there. . ” But you are crazy ! » The victim can only whisper to his jovial torturer…

From semi-crazy to complete rot

The 1970s belong to Bouquet. He is everywhere, sometimes in anything, like the evil troublemaker of a paranoid era. In The snake (1972), Henri Verneuil makes the member of the secret services he embodies say: “If someone told me that my wife, a Breton, to whom I have been married for forty years, was a secret agent, I would believe it immediately…” In Two Men in the City (José Giovanni, 1973), he plays a semi-crazy person, stubbornly attached to the loss of a repentant thug (Alain Delon). And in A count (1970), Yves Boisset transforms it into complete rot: a cop using the law to better violate it. This is one of his greatest roles: he is fascinatingly ambiguous there…

Charles Berling and Michel Bouquet in

Charles Berling and Michel Bouquet in “How I Killed My Father”, by Anne Fontaine (2001).


The rest of his career will not reach such heights. But his reputation is such that each of his appearances arouses unanimous enthusiasm. He won two Césars: one for Anne Fontaine’s film, how i killed my father (2001) where it is, indeed, remarkable. the other for The Walker of the Champ-de-Mars (2011), by Robert Guédiguian, where he portrays a mute François Mitterrand, almost Bressonnian, a little too predictable, however. It’s in Renoir (2012), by Gilles Bourdos, his last important role, that he becomes great again by playing the old painter, sensually troubled by a model who will become, shortly after, the favorite actress of his son, Jean.

In the theater, Michel Bouquet was eternal. In the cinema, it will have symbolized a very specific era: the post-68 and pre-AIDS years, which Françoise Giroud nicely nicknamed “the enchanted parenthesis”. It will have beautifully reflected the black side. The permanent trouble. Cold rage.


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