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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le Beau Serge tire sa révérence

by Jean Roy

Death of Jean-Claude Brialy: “Le Beau Serge” Bows Out

Translated Wednesday 20 June 2007, by Carol Gullidge, Patrick Bolland

Death. The great, universally loved actor, Jean-Claude Brialy, died at home late on 27 May, aged seventy-four.

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Brialy as Le Beau Serge with Bernadette Lafont
Photo: the Guardian

The actor, producer, writer and director of festival and theatre, man of the world and everybody’s friend, Jean-Claude Brialy, died at his home in Seine-et-Marne on 27 May, following a long illness. He was seventy-four years old.

Born in Aumale, Algeria, on 30 March 1933, the son of a colonel lived a childhood dictated by his father’s military postings. Not finding his father’s career especially inviting – even though he was always to have an interest in uniforms, just as he did in any form of directing, he enrolled first of all – with his baccalauréat behind him - at the Strasbourg Conservatoire, where he won the first prize for acting, and then at the Eastern Centre of Dramatic Art in Strasbourg. During his military service in Baden-Baden, in the armed forces film service, he made his first short film, Chiffonard et Bon Aloi. His job also enabled him to go to shows, and to meet various actors, including Edwige Feuillère and Jean Marais.

On his arrival in Paris in 1954, just when the young turks of the as-yet unnamed “New Wave” were taking over the influential film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, he was immediately one of the gang. Those were the days, when, with a little help from your friends, you got by without the unaffordable established actors like Belmondo and Godard. This was how Jacques Rivette came to use him for his short film, Le Coup du berger, in 1956. If over the next two years he was edging his way in various films, including Jean Renoir’s Elena and et les hommes, discovery came in 1958 with Claude Chabrol, who, in his first feature film, le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge), gave him the part of a Parisian returning after a ten-year absence to his village in the Creuse. The film, which won an award in Locarno, and the Jean-Vigo Prize, immediately attracted attention, and the performers (Brialy, Gérard Blain, and Bernadette Lafont) were widely acclaimed. This was the beginning of a collaboration that was complementary to a rare degree, and which continued immediately with Les Cousins (1959), Les Godelureaux (1961), L’Avarice (one of the sketches in Les Sept Péchés capitaux (1962), and was to re-form later with Inspecteur Lavardin (1986), where Brialy met up once again with Bernadette Lafont.

A young and insolent leading actor

So Jean-Claude Brialy was now branded “New Wave”. For Truffaut, he was an extra in Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows), before having a real part in La Mariée était en noir (“The Bride Wore Black”). For Godard, it was the early short films, Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick and Une Histoire d’eau, followed by Une femme est une femme (“A Woman is a Woman”). For Rohmer, it was the short La Sonate à Kreutzer ("The Kreutzer Sonata"), then Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee). For Pierre Kast, far too often forgotten, Un amour de poche, Le Bel âge, Un animal doué de déraison, and L’Herbe rouge.

If his character of sardonic young leading actor, good looking and with an undeniable gift of the gab, worked marvellously with the mavericks, Brialy was nevertheless able to move with the times and find new pastures with producers starting out in the mid-Seventies. Let us quote Bertrand Tavernier who used him in Le Juge et l’assassin, Claude Miller in Mortelle Randonnée, and L’Effrontée, and Patrice Chéreau in La Reine Margot. Not forgetting the hugely talented Bunuel, who gave him one of his finest parts in Le Fantôme de la liberté. One could carry on like this endlessly, trawling through the nearly 200 titles that Jean-Claude embellished with his participation. As with bulimics, not everything is worth retaining. Yet, reading through his filmography, it includes a surprising number of significant films – and often more than just significant.

The postcard to Delphine Seyrig

Meanwhile, we must save some space, for Brialy wasn’t just an actor. From 1972 until 2003, he got behind the camera to produce five cinema and six television films, astonishingly classical in form and serious in purpose, contrasting with what he could be elsewhere. Namely, Églantine, Les Volets clos, L’Oiseau rare, Un amour de pluie, Les Malheurs de Sophie, or Un bon petit diable. We also have to thank him for several books, especially Le Ruisseau des singes, Mon Algérie, and J’ai oublié de vous dire.

With that, there was enough to fill one or two lifetimes. Jean-Claude Brialy devoted another one to the theatre. How many thousands of performances could he have done? We don’t know. Seven hundred alone for Feydeau’s La Puce à l’oreille (“A Flea in Her Ear”), for example. He had directed the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris, presided over the Festival of Anjou from 1985 to 2000, going on to found the Festival of Ramatuelle, and bought the Paris Théâtre les Bouffes parisiens in 1986. He fought to obtain a reduction in VAT on seats and on advertising rates on Morris columns. We remember his appeal, on the night of the Molières in 1989, for minister Jack Lang to come to the aid of nine theatres in danger of closing.

Finally, more than the socialite that everyone described him as because of the dandy scarves that made him look so dapper, and even though he undeniably preferred palaces to flea-ridden beds, Jean-Claude Brialy was always “the reliable friend”. How many times did we see him to be the first to jump up to cheer at the end of a show! How many laurels did he - who loved to sport his many medals - obtain for other entertainers? And continuously. Here’s an anecdote for you. There were about ten of us at a festival in Marienbad one day, and it was none other than Brialy who had the mischievous idea of buying a postcard to send to Delphine Seyrig, with the words: “Nobody here is thinking of you.” (Incidentally, the background scenery for Marienbad was found by Resnais in Munich.) So, today, Jean-Claude, allow me this message: “We won’t forget you.”

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