28 June 2016

Serge Reggiani

One of the programme sections at Cinema Ritrovata 2016 is JACQUES BECKER – THE VERY IDEA OF FREEDOM. Becker is the director of such classics as Casque d'or (1952), starring Simone Signoret and Italian-born French singer and actor Serge Reggiani (1922-2004). After his breakthrough in Marcel Carné’s Les portes de la nuit/The Doors of the Night (1946), Reggiani went on to perform in 80 films including Le Doulos (1962), and Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (1963). In the 1960s he began a second career as a singer of chansons.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by Editions O.P., Paris, no. 142. Photo: Teddy Piaz.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 5, presented by Biscuits Chocolats Victoria, Bruxelles. Photo: Pathé Cinema.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 360. Photo: Sam Lévin.


Sergio Reggiani was born in Reggio Emilia, a town in northern Italy, in 1922. His father, a highly visible anti-fascist, fled his Mussolini-dictated homeland due to his fervent political activities and to protect his family. Serge moved to France with his parents at the age of eight. He learned to speak fluent French and developed an interest in athletics, particularly boxing, but went an entirely different route altogether by following in his father's footsteps as a hair stylist.

In 1937, Reggiani's career path changed yet again when he was accepted into the Conservatoire des Arts Cinematographiques. After graduation, he landed a few minor roles in both films and theatre and enrolled at the prestigious Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique in 1939 wherein he won numerous acting awards.

He was discovered by Jean Cocteau and appeared in a wartime production of Les Parents terribles/The Terrible Parents. In the cinema he made a remarkable debut in Voyageur De La Toussaint/Traveller of The Toussaint (Louis Daquin, 1943) with Jean Desailly. His next film was Le carrefour des enfants perdus/Children of Chaos (Léo Joannon, 1944).

DbDumonteil writes at IMDb: “The movie was another Serge Reggiani's tour de force after his brilliant debut in Daquin's Voyageur De La Toussaint. Even if Feuillade's Wunderkind René Dary is the star of the film - and he is quite effective as a demobilised officer (and an ex-boarder of Belle Ile) -, Reggiani steals every scene he is in predating the rebels without a cause who would appear in the American cinema of the fifties. His not-so-good-looking face, his sunken features in spite of his young age, his rebellious swagger made him the revelation of those dark years, because he looked the part so much.”

During the filming of Le carrefour des enfants perdus, he met and subsequently married actress Janine Darcey. They had two children: Stephan (1946) and Carine (1951). During World War II, he left Paris to join the French resistance. Though he earned a reputation for himself in the Paris theatre world, Reggiani was more interested in film-making and would thereafter focus his attention toward the big screen.

He starred in the classic Les portes de la nuit/The Gates of the Night (Marcel Carné, 1946). After obtaining French citizenship in 1948, he went on to secure a name for himself in the French cinema with roles in Manon (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1949) with Cécile Aubry, Les amants de Vérone/The Lovers of Verona (André Cayatte, 1949) opposite Anouk Aimée, La ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950) and Casque d'or (Jacques Becker, 1952) featuring Simone Signoret, who became a close friend.

Following his divorce from Janine Darcey, he married actress Annie Noël in 1958 and they had three children: Celia (1958), Simon (1961) and Maria (1963).

Serge Reggiani
Belgian collectors card by Merbotex, Bruxelles / Kursaal, Bertrix, no. 34. Photo: Vainquel.

Serge Reggiani in Les amants de Vérone (1949)
French collectors card. Photo: publicity still for Les amants de Vérone/The Lovers of Verona (André Cayatte, 1949).

Anouk Aimée and Serge Reggiani in Les amants de Vérone (1949)
French collectors card. Photo: publicity still for Les amants de Vérone/The Lovers of Verona (André Cayatte, 1949) with Anouk Aimée.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard.

True Vocation

After a promising start Serge Reggiani had never quite reached the peak with his acting career. In 1959, he seemed to have found his true vocation when he introduced a distinctive singing talent on the radio. That same year he also had a triumph in the theatre with his performance in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Les Séquestrés d'Altona.

In the cinema he was busy in two more classics: the thriller Le doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962) staring Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the historical epic Il gattopardo/The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963) starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon.

But in 1965 he finally could launch a musical career with the help of Simone Signoret and her husband Yves Montand and later with great assistance of the French diva Barbara. At the age of 43, he released his award-winning debut album and it proved to be such a major hit with both the French public and the critics that singing became a prime career.

As an actor he knew how to ‘perform’ a song, provoking sometimes laughter but mainly emotion. The deep voiced Reggiani became one of the most acclaimed performers of French chanson and although he was in his 40s, his bad-boy rugged image made him popular with both young and older listeners. A second album produced in 1967, plus a left-wing concert with Jacques Brel, clenched his popularity with the younger politically left generation of the late 1960s.

He began to extend himself internationally while continuing a healthy album output. Reggiani’s best known songs include Les loups sont entrés dans Paris (The Wolves Have Entered Paris) and Sarah (La femme qui est dans mon lit) (The Woman Who Is In My Bed), the latter written by Georges Moustaki. However, one of his regular songwriters throughout his career was Boris Vian (Le Déserteur, Arthur où t'as mis le corps, La Java des bombes atomiques). His new young fans identified with his left-wing ideals and anti militarism, most notably during the 1968 student revolts in France.

Serge Reggiani
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 1457.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 465. Photo: Lucienne Chevert.

Serge Reggiani
French card, no. 10.

Serge Reggiani
French postcard by La Roue Tourne, Paris.

Depression and Alcoholism

During the 1970s Serge Reggiani played supporting parts in several interesting films, such as Touche pas à la femme blanche/Don’t Touch the White Woman (Marco Ferreri, 1974) featuring Catherine Deneuve, Vincent, François, Paul... et les autres/ Vincent, François, Paul... and the Others (Claude Sautet, 1974) with Yves Montand, and La terrazza/The Terrace (Ettore Scola, 1980) with Vittorio Gassman.

With age Reggiani became more and more acclaimed as one of the best interpreters of the French chanson also bringing the poetry of Rimbaud, Apollinaire and Prévert closer to his audience. Children Stephan and Carine actively developed their own singing careers and Reggiani performed on the concert stage with them in encouragement but with lacklustre results. Son Stephan, completely overshadowed by his father, took this extremely hard and in 1980 committed suicide at the family home in Mougins. He was only 33.

Devastated, Reggiani withdrew from the music scene for a while to recover from his grief. For many years, he struggled with depression and alcoholism. Divorced from his second wife in 1973, he met actress Noëlle Adam in the 1980s and they lived in partnership for over 20 years, she becoming a lasting source of strength for him in dealing with his personal tragedies.

In 1985 the French government paid tribute to Reggiani's singing and acting careers with the prestigious Legion of Honor award. His later years would be more or less spent in seclusion, finding one last passion in painting. He displayed his works at his first exhibition in 1989. After performing in concert to mark the 25th anniversary of his singing career, Reggiani found the strength to return to the French music scene. In 1995, at age 70+, he successfully recorded and was welcomed back to the concert stage with great applause.

Though his acting career had calmed down a great deal, he did star in De force avec d'autres/Forced To Be With Others (1993), a film written and directed by his son Simon Reggiani that also featured Noëlle Adam. In 1998 he appeared in his final feature film El pianist/The Pianist (Mario Gas, 1998).

Reggiani and Adam married in 2003. His last concert was held as late as in the year of his death, in spring of 2004. Serge Reggiani died at his Paris home of a heart attack at the age of 82.

All of Reggiani's children inherited their father's artistic talents and have worked in the field of entertainment. Son Simon is a well-known director/writer/actor; daughters Carine and Celia work in music (the former is a singer-turned songwriter, the latter a musician); daughter Maria is a film editor; and grandson Nicolas has followed in the family footsteps as well. He launched a career as a singer performing songs covered by his late father, Stephan, Serge's oldest son.

Scene from Casque d'or (Jacques Becker, 1952) featuring Simone Signoret. Source: Little Ice Age (YouTube).

Trailer for Il Gattopardo (1963). Source: Blondinka Inoz (YouTube).

Serge Reggiani sings Sarah. Source: José Ramón San Juan (YouTube).

Serge Reggiani sings Madame (1969). Source: diverseclipuri (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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