Along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Louis Trintignant ranks among the most gifted French actors of the postwar era. An enigmatic talent noted for his thoughtful, economical performances, his presence has graced many of the most successful foreign productions of the past several decades. Born December 11, 1930, in Piolenc, France, Trintignant arrived in Paris in 1950 to study drama, and made his theatrical bow the following year in Jean Mogin's A Chacun Selon sa Faim. By 1953, he was touring in productions of Britannicus and Don Juan, and in 1954 he earned his first starring role in Robert Hossein's Responsabilite Limite. Trintignant's first film appearance was in Marcel Ichac's 1955 short Pechineff, followed by a supporting turn in 1956's Si Tous le Gars du Monde. His performance opposite seductress Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim's smash Et Dieu Crea la Femme brought Trintignant his first widespread notice, but after appearing in Club des Femmes, he was drafted into military service in Algiers, halting his film career for several years.
Upon returning from duty, Trintignant initially planned to quit acting, but he was then offered the chance to star as Hamlet in Paris. Strong critical response re-ignited his interest in his craft, and in 1959, he resurfaced in Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, followed by the Italian production L'Estate Violenta. Performances under Abel Gance (Austerlitz) and Georges Franju (Pleins Feux sur l'Assassin) followed, and in 1960 Trintigant co-starred in the Jacques Doniol-Valcroze romantic comedy hit Le Coeur Battant. A series of wide-ranging projects followed before he traveled back to Italy to co-star with Vittorio Gassman in 1962's Il Sorpasso, which became a tremendous smash. Trintignant and Gassman then reunited a year later to appear in a sequel, Il Successo. The features that followed were largely a mixed bag, however, but in 1966 he starred in three separate films shown at the Cannes Film Festival: La Longue Marche, Le Dix-Septieme Ciel, and Un Homme et une Femme. While the first two failed to garner much notice, Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une Femme became the most successful French film ever screened in the foreign market, and overnight Trintignant became a star.
He next appeared in Rene Clement's Is Paris Burning?, followed by Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1967 cult hit Trans-Europ-Express. Trintignant's next project, the romance Mon Amour, Mon Amour, was helmed by his wife, Nadine Trintignant. After several undistinguished features he starred in Robbe-Grillet's L'Homme qui Ment, appearing as a pathological liar. The role was among the first in a series of edgier, sexually charged portrayals in pictures like Claude Chabrol's 1968 effort Les Biches (as a man who destroys a lesbian relationship), Pasquale Festa Campanile's La Matriarca (as a doctor lured into his mistress' kinky fantasies), and Una Ragazza Piuttosto Complicata (as a cold-blooded murderer) which greatly expanded his range as a performer. However, Trintignant's next major role, in Costa-Gavras' 1969 political thriller Z, cast him as an idealistic young attorney, and was his second major global success. Also an international hit was Eric Rohmer's Ma Nuit chez Maud, in which Trintignant starred as a lonely engineer torn between two women.
Trintignant continued working with many of Europe's most prominent filmmakers: After reuniting with Lelouch in 1970's Le Voyou, he starred in Bernardo Bertolucci's masterful Il Conformista in 1971. Sans Mobile Apparent, another major hit, followed that same year, and in 1973 Trintignant made his directorial debut with Une Journée Bien Remplie. However, the mid-'70s were a difficult period, as few of his pictures screened outside of France. Finally, in 1978 he returned to form in Christian de Chalonge's L' Argent des Autres, which garnered the Prix Delluc and the Cesar for Best Film. In 1983, he made his first wholly English-language feature, Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire, and then starred in Francois Truffaut's final film, Vivement Dimanche! Despite the involvement of all of the previous film's principals, 1986's Un Homme et une Femme: Vingt Ans Déjà was both a commercial and artistic failure, and Trintignant's international profile continued to dim. Nevertheless, he went on regularly making films in France, but did not resurface in a global hit prior to Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1994 masterpiece Trois Couleurs: Rouge. Subsequently, he lent his voice to another hit, the widely praised La Cite des Enfants Perdus in 1995, and the following year appeared with Mathieu Kassovitz in the similarly lauded Un Heros Tres Discret.