Acting legend Michel Bouquet
Acting legend Michel Bouquet Image Credit: AFP

Michel Bouquet, a prizewinning French actor who brought an understated magnetism to classic stage roles and New Wave films, often playing bourgeois characters whose respectable appearance masked a turbulently passionate inner life, died on April 13 at a hospital in Paris. He was 96.

His death was confirmed in a statement by the lyse Palace, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron, which did not cite a cause. “For seven decades,” Macron said, “Michel Bouquet brought theater and cinema to the highest degree of incandescence and truth, showing man in all his contradictions, with an intensity that burned the boards and burst the screen.”

Acting legend Michel Bouquet
Image Credit: AFP

Bouquet started out in the theater, collaborating with playwrights such as Albert Camus and Jean Anouilh, before working with New Wave directors such as Claude Chabrol and Franois Truffaut, who cast him as moody antiheroes and in offbeat supporting roles where he was easily recognizable by his deep voice, glinting eyes and mischievous smile.

“He’s a greatly original actor. Even if he has a very relaxed and smiling air, there’s something in his acting that’s disconcerting, destabilizing, that provokes strangeness all the time,” filmmaker Anne Fontaine said in a 2002 interview with the New York Times. Bouquet starred the previous year in her film “How I Killed My Father,” winning a Csar Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for his portrayal of an aging physician who returns to his sons’ lives decades after leaving them.

Bouquet appeared in nearly 120 film and television roles even as he remained active on the Paris stage, taking parts well into retirement age - he starred in a production of Molire’s “Tartuffe” at 92 - and playing the title role in Eugne Ionesco’s “Exit the King” more than 800 times. He won the country’s highest theater award, the Molire, in 1998 and 2005, for his performances in Bertrand Blier’s absurdist play “Les Ctelettes” and in “Exit the King,” as a narcissistic ruler coming to terms with his mortality.

Working with Chabrol, he starred in 'La femme infidle' ('The Unfaithful Wife,' 1969) as a jealous husband driven to commit what New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby called “one of the saddest, funniest murders ever staged on film,” beating his wife’s lover over the head with a stone bust. He and Chabrol partnered again on “Just Before Nightfall” (1971), in which he played a guilt-ridden man who kills his lover during a sadomasochistic tryst, then confesses to his crime while seeking forgiveness or perhaps just looking for punishment.

Bouquet was also a favorite of Truffaut, who cast him as a bachelor targeted for death in 'The Bride Wore Black' (1968), an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, and as a private detective attacked by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the romantic drama 'Mississippi Mermaid' (1969). He frequently played crooked lawmen, including as a police officer on an obsessive quest for revenge in “The Cop” (1970).

But he also ranged far beyond crime films, delivering the harrowing narration in Alain Resnais’s landmark Holocaust documentary 'Night and Fog' (1956) and starring as a despotic newspaper publisher who fires an employee for having sweaty hands in 'The Toy' (1976), a satirical comedy that was adapted into a Hollywood movie with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason.

He won his second Csar for 'The Last Mitterand' (2005), in which he played former socialist president Franois Mitterand, who grapples with his political legacy and impending death from prostate cancer. “He is a little stiff-limbed, yet moves with a dancer’s grace,” wrote David Gritten, a reviewer for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “Charming, arrogant, child-like and teasing in turn, Bouquet offers up a masterclass in understated character acting, and delivers an indelible interpretation of a complex, infuriating man.”

Bouquet was born in Paris on Nov. 6, 1925. His father, a World War I veteran, was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II and spent four years in captivity in Pomerania. His mother was a milliner who accompanied him to the Opra-Comique during the Nazi occupation, taking his mind off the conflict and revealing the power of the theater.

“Each time the curtain rose, there was no longer the horror of war, there were no longer Germans around. . . . The unreal world far exceeded the real world,” Bouquet told the news agency Agence France-Presse. “It was the best lesson of my life.”

Mentored by stage actor Maurice Escande, he trained at the Paris Conservatory, performed at the inaugural Avignon arts festival in 1947 and developed a close working relationship with Camus, appearing in his plays “Caligula,” “The Just Assassins” and the Dostoevsky adaptation “The Possessed.” He later helped popularize the work of British playwright Harold Pinter in France and starred in works of existential angst and anxiety by Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard.

“In the theater, the personality of the author is so majestic, whether it be Pinter or Molire, that all one does is try to convey the word as obediently as possible,” he told the AFP. “It is forgetting yourself that is most important.”

Michel Bouquet

On-screen, Bouquet starred in the Belgian film 'Toto the Hero' (1991), as an old man preoccupied with thoughts of what might have been, and in 'Les Misrables' (1982), as the rigid Inspector Javert. He received a third Csar nomination for 'Renoir' (2012), playing the impressionist painter as a domineering artist suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in his old age.

His marriage to actress Ariane Borg ended in divorce. He later married Juliette Carr, with whom he often performed. She survives him, according to the lyse Palace news release, but additional information on survivors was not immediately available.

Bouquet was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 2018 and announced his retirement the next year.

“I did what I could, as I could, and I didn’t ask myself too many questions,” he said at the time, looking back on his career. “I made my merry way but without any intellectual pretensions.”