French postcard by La Roue Tourne, Paris. Imp. Rivier, no. 961-14-01.
The first film of the Nouvelle Vague
Philippe Noiret was born in Lille, France, in 1930. His parents were Lucy Noiret-Heirman and Pierre Noiret, a clothing company representative. He was an indifferent scholar and attended several prestigious Paris schools, including the Lycée Janson de Sailly. He failed several times to pass his baccalauréat exams, so he decided to study theatre.
Noiret trained at the Centre Dramatique de l'Ouest and toured with the Théâtre National Populaire for seven years, where he met actress Monique Chaumette, whom he married in 1962. During that time he developed a career as a nightclub comedian in a duo act with Jean-Pierre Darras, in which he played Louis XIV in an extravagant wig opposite Darras as the dramatist Jean Racine.
Noiret's screen debut was an uncredited role in Gigi (Jacqueline Audry, 1949) starring Gaby Morlay. Jacqueline Audry cast Noiret again in Olivia/The Pit of Loneliness (1950).
In 1955 he appeared in Agnès Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte/The Short Point opposite Sylvia Montfort. This was considered to be the first film of the Nouvelle Vague. Sporting a pudding-basin haircut, Noiret played a lovelorn youth in the southern fishing port of Sète. No members of the cast or crew were paid during the production. The budget for the film was low, costing only $14,000. This was roughly one fourth the budget of other Nouvelle Vague films of the era such as Les 400 Coups/The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) and À Bout de Souffle/Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) .
Noiret was not cast again until 1960 in Zazie dans le métro/Zazie in the Metro (Louis Malle, 1960), based on the novel by Raymond Queneau. Noiret played a female impersonator, who happens to be the uncle of 10-year-old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot). The provincial girl stays in Paris with him for two days, while her mother spends some time with her lover. Zazie manages to evade her uncle's custody, however, and, metro strike notwithstanding, sets out to explore the city on her own.
For his role in Thérèse Desqueyroux (Georges Franju, 1962) as the dull but inoffensive husband poisoned by his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), he won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. In the romantic adventure Le Capitaine Fracasse/Captain Fracasse (Pierre Gaspard-Huit, 1961), he played the second lead to Jean Marais. From then on, he became a regular on the French screen, without being cast in major roles until the romantic comedy La Vie de château/A Matter of Resistance (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1966) in which he played the male lead opposite Catherine Deneuve.
Finally, Noiret became a star in France with Alexandre le Bienheureux/Very Happy Alexander (Yves Robert, 1968). Noiret plays a henpecked childless farmer that lives oppressed by his authoritarian and materialistic wife, being the only worker in his farm. When she is killed in a car accident, the charming hedonist decides that the time has come to take it easy, locks himself up in his house with his dog and stays in bed.
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 139 69. Photo: Unifrance Film.
French postcard by Photomania / Studio Magazine, Paris, no. PSM 393. Photo: Luc Roux.
Everyman character and controversial
In 1976, Philippe Noiret won his first César Award for his role in Vieux Fusil/The Old Gun (Robert Enrico, 1975) opposite Romy Schneider. His second César came in 1990 for his role in La vie et rien d'autre/Life and Nothing But (Bertrand Tavernier, 1990).
He appeared in several Hollywood-financed films like The Night of the Generals (Anatole Litvak, 1967), the spy thriller Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969), the drama Justine (George Cukor, Joseph Strick, 1969), the war film Murphy's War (Peter Yates, 1971) starring Peter O'Toole, and the comedy mystery Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (Ted Kotcheff, 1978).
Philippe Noiret was cast primarily as the Everyman character, although he did not hesitate to accept controversial roles, such as in La Grande Bouffe/Blow Out (Marco Ferreri, 1973), a film about suicide by overeating, which caused a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival.
Interesting was also his role as a man leading a quiet life in a Lyons suburb, stunned when he learns that his son is wanted for murder in L'Horloger de Saint-Paul/The Watchmaker of St Paul (Bertrand Tavernier, 1974). It was the first of a dozen films he made with director Bertrand Tavernier. Their second film together was the period piece Que La Fête Commence/Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier, 1975) in which the bewigged actor seemed to relish the role of the atheistic Philippe d'Orleans. For Tavernier, he also played a good humoured but ineffectual local constable in French West Africa who becomes a serial murderer in Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier, 1981).
In Gli occhiali d'oro/The Gold Rimmed Glasses (Giuliano Montaldo, 1987), he played an elderly and respectable doctor who has a passion for a beautiful young man (Rupert Everett), and in J'embrasse pas/I Don't Kiss (André Téchiné, 1991), he was a melancholy old homosexual obsessed with young men.
A huge success was the Italian drama Nuovo Cinema Paradiso/Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) in which he played a wonderfully warm-hearted projectionist at a failing provincial cinema, affectionately sharing his love of film with a young enthusiast. Cinema Paradiso won the Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and the 1989 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Another international success was the Italian film Il postino/Il Postino: The Postman (Michael Radford, 1994) which tells a fictional story in which the real life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Noiret) forms a relationship with a simple postman (Massimo Troisi) who learns to love poetry.
In 2006, Philippe Noiret died of cancer in Paris, aged 76. By the time of his death, Noiret had more than 100 film roles to his credit. In his obituary for The Guardian, Ronald Bergan wrote: “The tall, bulky build and droopy bloodhound face of Philippe Noiret, who has died aged 76, were significant features on the European cinema landscape for more than half a century.”
Collage by Kay Harpa @ Flickr.
Trailer Nuovo Cinema Paradiso/Cinema Paradiso (1988). Source: Ageless Trailers (YouTube).
Trailer Il postino/Il Postino: The Postman (1994). Source: grandepuffo20 (YouTube).
Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), Wikipedia and IMDb.