Jean-Pierre Bacri, known for his gruff charm and hangdog look
Any admirer of French cinema over the past 40 years will have developed a soft spot for the hangdog looks and gruff, rumpled charm of the actor Jean-Pierre Bacri, who has died aged 69 of cancer. In the tradition of Walter Matthau, he brought sympathetic comic shading to even the most irredeemable worrywart or miseryguts. His speciality was a saturnine impatience with life that was nonetheless susceptible to glimmers of optimism; he could mope and hope with equal conviction. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, praised his “laconic and sensitive humanity”, calling him “the tenderest of our grouches”.
Those qualities were present also in Bacri’s award-winning screenplays, written mostly with his longtime partner Agnès Jaoui; their collaboration outlived the end of their relationship in 2012. They co-wrote and starred in a series of urbane and insightful comedies of manners, which Jaoui also directed, and which earned her comparisons to Woody Allen. In Under the Rainbow (2013), it was Bacri who took the Allen-esque role of a disconsolate driving instructor convinced his number is up after a fortune teller predicts the date of his death. “You’re shut tight like a vault,” his girlfriend tells him, prefiguring a pleasure common to many of Bacri’s performances: that slight eventual unclenching as his characters start to entertain the remote possibility of joy.
The couple’s biggest success was The Taste of Others (Le Goût des Autres) (2000), Jaoui’s directing debut, in which Bacri played a philistine factory owner besotted by the lead actor (Anne Alvaro) in a production of Jean Racine’s Bérénice. It was an international hit, and a surprise Oscar contender for best foreign language film. They won the best screenplay prize at Cannes for Look at Me (2004), starring Bacri as an arrogant publisher who behaves cruelly toward his overweight daughter.
In their follow-up, Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008), he was a struggling film-maker. Their final project together, Place Publique (2018), cast him as a washed-up TV presenter. “I would have made more egocentric movies without him,” Jaoui said in 2008. “He is self-taught, and when he knows something, he knows it forever.” She called him “my favourite actor and writer” and “the man that understands me the best and the quickest”.
The affection was reciprocated. “It’s a vacation when I work on a film with Agnès,” Bacri said. “We talk, smoke joints … We like each other.” The critic David Denby said the couple had “mastered the art of complex narrative. They have a story to tell, but they go so far into manners, quirks, and undertones that we feel, at the end of their films, that we have understood not just a dramatised anecdote but an entire way of life.” Denby called Bacri “a master of the many shades of half-interest and sullen boredom. His expression asks, ‘What’s the point?’”
He was born in Castiglione (now Bou Ismaïl) in Algeria, the son of a postman and a housewife, and raised in Cannes; he traced his love of film to his father’s weekend job at one of the town’s cinemas. He was educated at the Lycée Carnot in Cannes, then moved to Paris in 1976 to become an advertising copywriter. He studied drama from 1977 at Le Cours Simon and won a prize two years later for his play The Sweet Face of Love. French film and television work followed, with early parts including a pimp in Le Grand Pardon (1982), a would-be actor in postwar Lyon in Diane Kurys’ Entre Nous (1983), and a cop in Luc Besson’s stylish thriller Subway (1985), for which Bacri earned his first César nomination. He met Jaoui in 1986 when they appeared in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They began writing together soon after.