Under the Kanopy: Two with Michel Piccoli

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

By Craig J. Clark

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012)

On May 12, the great and greatly prolific French actor Michel Piccoli died at the age of 94. With
hundreds of screen credits to his name, from 1945 to 2015, Piccoli was a fixture of French cinema who
worked with nearly every major director in the French film industry, often multiple times. He didn’t
cross paths with New Wave fixture Alain Resnais until both were in the twilight of their careers, though,
when Resnais cast Piccoli as himself in his penultimate feature. Based on two plays by French playwright
Jean Anouilh, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet starts with a baker’s dozen actors being summoned to the
home of a deceased playwright whose version of Eurydice they've all performed in at one time or
another. To their surprise, they’ve been assembled to view a recording of a new avant-garde production
of the play, but instead of idly watching, the actors – starting with Piccoli, who played Orpheus’s father –
begin reciting their dialogue and interacting with the performers onscreen. And Resnais doesn’t stop
there, employing digital effects to make people appear and disappear and split screens when multiple
actor pairs are playing the same scene simultaneously. It’s all part of the gamesmanship that has been
part of the director’s modus operandi going back to 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad (which doesn’t
feature Piccoli, but is still worth checking out and puzzling over).

Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, 1956)

One of Michael Piccoli’s most fruitful collaborations was with Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, with whom
he made six films in all. The first was Death in the Garden, a French/Mexican co-production for which
Buñuel toned down his surrealistic tendencies to tell a story set in an unnamed South American state
where a government takeover of the diamond mines gets the prospectors who have staked their claims
all riled up. That leads to complications for a number of people just passing through, including Piccoli’s
Father Lizardi, a Catholic missionary who’s eager to take up his post with an Indian tribe deep in the
jungle. When the miners’ rebellion tips over into violence, Father Lizardi joins four other French
nationals – a prostitute played by top-billed Simone Signoret, a grizzled prospector played by Charles
Vanel and his deaf-mute daughter, and a rugged loner played by Georges Marchal – on the next boat
heading out of town. Unfortunately for all of them, when they're forced to cut through the jungle
they're deprived of their provisions and they really aren't up to the task of surviving without them. To
say Father Lizardi’s faith gets tested along with everyone else’s would be an understatement.

After Death in the Garden, Piccoli reunited with Buñuel for 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid and could be
counted on to pop up in roles both large and small in Belle de Jour, The Milky Way (in which Piccoli plays
the Marquis de Sade), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty. He even
dubbed the voice of Spanish actor Fernando Rey in Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, in
which the female lead is played in alternating scenes by two different actresses. Sounds like something
Alain Resnais would cook up.