One of France’s most distinguished actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant had a career that stretched from the mid-1950s and his role as Brigitte Bardot’s lover in And God Created Woman to 2012 and Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning drama Amour, in which he was an elderly man dealing with his wife’s physical and mental decline.
Life imitated art at several points in Trintignant’s life. His off-set affair with Bardot led to his divorce from actress Stephane Audran and Bardot’s split with husband Roger Vadim, who happened to the be film’s director.
The film itself was a big international hit, it turned Bardot into a sex symbol and it seems Vadim did not carry a grudge against Trintignant as they subsequently worked together on a couple of other films.
Life also imitated art when it came to the 1966 Nouvelle Vague classic Un Homme et Une Femme. Trintignant played a racing driver. It was a scene he knew very well. One uncle, Maurice Trintignant, had a long career in Formula One in the 1950s and 1960s, won the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24-hour race at Le Mans. Another uncle Louis Trintignant was killed in practice.
Trintignant was himself a keen amateur racing driver and his third wife, Marianne Hoepfner, also raced.
Born in 1930 in the village of Piolenc, near Avignon, in the south of France, Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant was the son of a wealthy industrialist. His mother had wanted a girl and for the first few years of his life she would dress him in girls’ clothes.
During the Second World War his father was active in the French Resistance, his mother was arrested and Trintignant and his older brother spent several months hiding out in the woods.
After the war he studied Law in Aix-en-Provence but never finished his course.
Instead he moved to Paris and studied at the national film school with the intention of becoming a director. He enrolled in acting classes, at least partly in an attempt to overcome his shyness. And God Created Woman was one of his earliest films. Mild by modern standards, it pushed the boundaries on sex and nudity, was censored in many places and formally “Condemned” by the Catholic Legion of Decency, all of which helped make it a hit.
It made stars of Bardot and to a lesser extent Trintignant. And while Bardot relished the attention, Trintignant was less keen on the celebrity status that the film and his relationship with his co-star brought.
It is not clear whether he volunteered or was conscripted into the French army, but in any case he spent the next few years doing military service in Germany and Algeria, which he found a deeply troubling experience.
After leaving the Army and considering motor racing as a professional career, he was lured back into acting by the chance to play Hamlet on stage and he was soon working with Vadim again on Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Trintignant worked steadily throughout the remainder of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s before Claude Chabrol’s Un Homme et Une Femme once again raised his profile around the world. It combined romance, racing and an extremely catchy Francis Lai theme tune. It won the Palme d’Or and Oscars for best foreign language film and best original screenplay.
He went on to star in a string of classic European movies, working with many of Europe’s top directors. He was reunited with Chabrol on Les Biches, in which his character was involved with two lesbians, one of them played by his ex-wife Stephane Audran.
He starred in Costa-Gavras’s political drama Z, Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red, and in 2013 he won the Cesar for Best Actor, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for his performance in Amour.He and Anouk Aimee, his co-star in Un Homme et Une Femme, also appeared in two sequels to that film, in 1986 and 2019, by which time he was in his late eighties.
While many other European stars were more than happy to try their luck in Hollywood, Trintignant eschewed America for projects in France and Italy. He reputedly turned down approaches from Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. “Why would I have gone to shoot abroad when I had so many roles in France?” he said.
One French movie he did turn down was the controversial Last Tango in Paris and the role went to Marlon Brando instead.
One of his most recent films was the 2017 drama entitled Happy End, which reunited him with Michael Haneke. He played an elderly man considering suicide and he said at the time: “Like him, I’m at the end of my life. And, like him, I think a lot about suicide.”
His own life was marked by drama and tragedy. He was married three times, divorced twice and survived by his third wife and by a son from his second marriage. But one daughter died in infancy, a cot death, while his other daughter Marie Trintignant, an actress who appeared with him in several films, died in 2003 from injuries inflicted by her rock star boyfriend Bertrand Cantat when he became jealous over a text message and flew into a rage.
“For three months I didn’t speak,” said Trintignant. “After that I realised I had to either stop living, commit suicide or continue to live.” In 2018, the year after Happy End came out, it was announced that he had prostate cancer and was not seeking treatment.
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