The Passion of Pierre Clémenti: European cinema’s christ-devil child

“I hung out in St. Germain. Picking up cigarettes from the street. One day, a guy came up to me and said, ‘Come, we need you.’ I followed him to a big house where people dressed in Medieval costumes were rehearsing a play. It was Procès aux Templiers. One of them came towards me. We looked each other in the eye; it was the beginning of a long friendship.
– What’s your name?
– Pierre Clémenti
– I’m Jean-Pierre Kalfon. Do you want to be in theatre? Come on, I’ll show you how.

That’s how I became an actor.”

–Pierre Clémenti, Quelques messages personnels.
[n.b. all translated quotes from Quelques messages personnels referenced in the text as QMP]

Born at 6am in the 14th arrondissement in Paris, 28th September 1942, Pierre Clémenti died in the same city, of liver cancer, Monday 27th December 1999; days before the end of the century. He never knew his father, who was said to have been killed in the war, and instead took his name from his Corsican mother. He discovered poetry at reform school as a young teenager, and his love of it lasted a lifetime. After working as a bellboy at the Hotel Littré in the late 1950s, where he also managed to sell a few poems to a female guest he’d spent the night with, he was able to concentrate on hanging out with his friends in Saint Germain. On these streets he was fatefully sidetracked into an acting career that became symbolic of so many aspects of European cinema of the time: experimentalism, anarchy, androgyny, anti-heroism, surrealism and pariah culture.

Clémenti became a student of drama at the Vieux-Colombier and Rue Blanche Schools, and his acting career began in underground theatre in the early 1960s when Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon introduced him to fringe director Marc’O, who quickly invited Clémenti into his avant-garde troupe, later to achieve marginal fame under the guise of their act “Les Idoles“. The group would spend their days rehearsing or hanging out in Saint Germain, at places like The Drugstore or la Coupole, amidst a group of friends, like-minded French youth who were to go on to be symbols of a whole generation, but who at the time were known to each other simply as La Bande de la Coupole.

The actress Zouzou (L’Amour l’apres-midi, Rohmer, 1972) was part of that gang, and remembers meeting Clémenti in the early sixties, when she and actor/musician Jacques Dutronc (Merci pour le chocolat, Chabrol, 2001) would regularly cross paths with Marc’O’s crowd at the Drugstore.

“One evening I met a sublime boy, dressed entirely in black. No-one knew him, he had a wild air, and winked at me . . . Ever since we first met on Rue Saint-Benoit, Pierre and I never stopped crossing paths. I knew his wife Margaret from the Drugstore . . . I found them magnificent together. They had a little chambre de bonne on Rue Gregoire-de-Tours. Whenever I passed below their window, I would go and see them. In those days we didn’t make appointments.” 1

It was at the Café Flore in Saint Germain in 1963 that Clémenti met Alain Delon who invited him, on the promise of a part, to come to Rome where he was filming The Leopard (Visconti, 1963). Clémenti arrived in Rome at Visconti’s palace in jeans and a leather jacket. Visconti told him he had the hands of a prince. He hired him to play the son of prince Salina, and this marked the beginning of Clémenti’s great love affair with Italy and Italian cinema.

Marc’O’s troupe effectively created the new café-théâtre scene of the 1960s.

Clementi:“It was fantastic for us, because it gave us the opportunity to not have to wait years to perform pieces we’d worked upon. We did what all theatre people dream of: write a play, rehearse it and put it on soon after. To realise our ideas immediately. It did us so much good to be confronted with real people as spectators of our theatre. We tried to go a little further every time, but it was always from a communal standpoint . . . The troupe of Marc’O was an arc and a voyage. Five years of collective work, of initiation and invention, the same energy that nourished us all, a community of men and women who united their forces to converge to the same source, who gave entirely to the group, without being compromised by career considerations or personal success.” (QMP)

“Les Idoles” and their eponymous film (Marc’O, 1968 – with André Téchiné as assistant director) was a satire on both the world of show business and its “ye-ye” celebrity wave (a kind of French answer to Swinging London and its new pop mythology), and the commercial machinations of the celebrity industry.

Clémenti: “We wanted to share our rage with the spectator so that they’d come out of their two hour voyage with a renewed energy. I hope that our energy served to make the life of our spectator clearer, to make them understand a bit better how the system functioned, how it controlled our lives, trapped us in our houses, the factories, the prisons all for the ‘welfare of the nation’. By playing the idols, we refused to become them.” (QMP)

The group, consisting of Ogier, Kalfon, Clémenti, the artist Daniel Pommereulle (La Collectionneuse, Rohmer, 1967, and to whom Philippe Garrel dedicated his 2005 film, Les Amants reguliers) and other burgeoning stars of French underground cinema lived and worked closely together, and were aligned in their theatre work to Beck and Malina’s Living Theatre, the Italian Centro Sperimentali actors and the Situationists. The young actors were changing the face of European theatre in a way which would spill over into cinema very soon.

Valerie Lagrange recalled being introduced to this new form of radical theatre:

“They lived and travelled all together, possessed nothing and shared everything. They were the purs et durs of the counter-culture. The first play that I saw them perform was La Peste by Camus. During the show, they came down off the stage, launched forth into the audience, rolling around, spitting, contorting themselves, shouting, it was really disturbing. They were like the possessed, in a trance. Incredible! I was bewitched, suffocated by the violence that they expressed, I had never seen anything like it.” 2

Margaret Clémenti, Pierre’s wife, later became Lagrange’s best friend, and inspired the latter’s song “La Folie.” In Marc’O’s film, Pierre Clémenti played Charly le surineur, to Bulle Ogier’s Gigi la folle, a parody France Gall and Johnny Hallyday.

Clémenti’s early screen appearances exemplified the ambivalence of modern European cinema, with its emphatic switch of appreciation to the work of underground filmmaking, whilst still garlanding the unstoppable grandeur of the masters of mainstream cinema. It is interesting to note that Clémenti turned down a role in the worthwhile but overblown Satyricon (Fellini, 1968) in favour of a role in Philippe Garrel’s Le Lit de la vierge, not just eschewing the salary and status the former would have brought him, but opting for the challenge of working with Garrel (limited production expenses, a decidely more restricted distribution, and, more importantly, a hands-off attitude on the part of the director). Clémenti recalled his audition for Satyricon, during which the director told him he had been searching for “a succession of faces, a procession of heads . . . You have pointed ears like a wolf, you mustn’t hide them” (QMP). They had nonetheless planned to work together on a later project, although the occasion never materialised.

Working with Garrel, as much as with Bunuel, Clémenti came to personify one of the most radical and idiosyncratic actors in modern cinema. His own self-directed underground films were equally as individualistic. Clémenti’s luminous, brooding and highly ambivalent beauty turned him almost overnight into an iconic pin-up who was a true symbol of his time. It was Bunuel’s masterpiece of surrealism, Belle de jour (1967) and his second appearance (the first being Adorable menteuse, 1961) in a Michel Deville film, Benjamin ou les mémoires d’un puceau (1968), that were to become two of his most defining roles. In Benjamin, Clémenti plays a beautiful young naif gone awry. In Belle de jour, whilst appearing to be playing himself, he dazzled viewers and critics as equally as he repulsed them, playing the sadistic lover of the puritanically beautiful and masochistic Severine (Deneuve). It was he who suggested to Bunuel that the character of Deneuve’s lover should wear the leather coat, gold teeth, and moth-eaten socks. As different as the two roles were in Benjamin and Belle de jour, they sealed his image as a fallen angel/bad boy character actor.

In his prison-penned memoir, Quelques messages personnels, Clémenti described his meeting with Bunuel:

He had a legend, the aura of genius, a friend to the mysterious and the strange. I arrived full of holy terror and mad hope all at the same time. I was struck immediately by one thing, only one: he’s a man of whom you only see the face. The fabulous mouth, worked by life, heavily wrinkled skin, the driven eyes, but in their black ring, a sparkling light. I was incapable of saying a word, I don’t even remember if it was a production office, an apartment, a hotel room. I looked at the deep earth of his face, the clear water of his regard. They told me ‘Speak loudly, we don’t know if he’s deaf or if he pretends to be . . . But how to speak? I repeated to myself ‘Come on. You have to speak.’ I thought that my silence and my insistence on staring would become intolerable. Someone else would surely have addressed me, would have started to speak, if only to reduce the tension a little. He was content to just look at me. Simply, directly, as if we had met there for a mutual exam and that words weren’t necessary. A guy walked in, perhaps an assistant, I can’t remember. Bunuel turned towards me. ‘This is Clémenti. Show him the script.’ If I understood properly, I had just been hired for Belle de jour…With no other director did I have such a feeling of confidence.” (QMP)

On the afternoon of 11th May 1968, Clémenti, Kalfon, Jean-Luc Godard, Valerie Lagrange, Denis Berry and (later Goncourt-Prize winning author) Jean-Jacques Schuhl were charged at by Parisian CRS riot police on Boulevard Saint Michel, as they made their way towards the Jardins de Luxembourg to hear Daniel Cohn-Bendit making a speech to the protestors, whose anarchic demonstrations were now in full swing. Suddenly surrounded by a street war, the group made their way back to Schuhl’s apartment in the rue Royer-Collard, where they spent the night answering the door to various bloody protestors who had dropped by to clean up the teargas from their eyes, and nurse other war wounds. Below on the street huge flames now filled the Latin Quarter as upturned cars burned. It was a turning point for many of the participants: Kalfon eventually dropped out of cinema for the time being to concentrate on music, Lagrange severed her record company deal with Phillips and Clémenti became increasingly based in Italy.

He often stayed at the Albergo Provincia Romana in the Trastevere, the old quarter in Rome, when he was filming, and became part of the family of artists and working people living there who referred to him adoringly as Pietro.

“I also came to Rome to meditate on the meaning of christianity…To find the meaning of the sacred, the mysteries which were also the first representations of theatre. And present this sacriment to spectators who were perhaps waiting for a revelation . . . I love the Italian people, the poor people, those who slave like beasts to make their incredible families live well. They know a lot about life, more than the grand people know. They know to what point the system enslaves them, but they are full of hope and energy. They are the true force of Italy.” (QMP)

With Nico on the set of Cicatrice.

If there was a key moment when modern French and Italian cinema joined forces, in anticipation of the coming sociopolitical events, it was with Bertolucci’s work on his films Before the Revolution (1964), and Partner (1968), the latter based on Dostoeyvsky’s short story The Double. Both were heavily inflected with modern leftist politics, and Partner in particular was greatly influenced by the Nouvelle Vague. It was also one of the first films made in Italy with live sound.

“Back then, politics was personal and collective at the same time. I was a little old — I was 27 in 1968 — but I was still infected. My lead actor, Pierre Clémenti, went to Paris every weekend. He came back with these wonderful slogans: ‘It’s forbidden to forbid.’ And ‘Be Realistic, Ask for the Impossible.'”3

In Partner, Clémenti plays two lead characters: a drama teacher, Giacobbe, and his doppelganger or alter-ego – “You and I are on different paths.” He brings the double home with him, and through him finally begins to grow stronger in his commitment to acts of anarchy, acts which the double performs for him. In one scene there is a sartorial allusion to his character in Belle de jour. Petrushka (Sergio Tofano), his landlord, helps him prepare to elope with Stefania Sandrelli, and criticises his socks: “how can you elope in socks with holes in them?”

Giacobbe uses the double to perform anarchic shows with his drama students, and shows them how to manufacture a Molotov cocktail. The double continues unnoticed until both of them confront Tina Aumont, a soap-salesgirl who is emotionally lost and self-confrontational at the same time, and who engages in a hyperpop scene with Clémenti, dancing around in a bath of soap suds flowing from an open washing machine.

Frederic Pardo and Tina Aumont

Aumont (the daughter of screen legends Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Clémenti were close friends offscreen too, and they lived close to one other in Rome. At the time, although still married to actor Christian Marquand, she was living with the painter Frédéric Pardo, a lifelong close friend of Philippe Garrel. It was at Pardo and Aumont’s house that Garrel’s longterm relationship with singer/actress Christa Paffgen, aka Nico, began.

In one scene in Partner, there is a panoramic shot of Rome, and in which Clémenti preaches May ’68 slogans to students played by members of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, before repeating “A man of theatre’s only duty is to make theatre” as the students disperse through Rome’s ancient ruined columns. This scene is the most public expression of Giacobbe’s political discontent. The students from the Centro Sperimentale had already committed to political theatre a year earlier, and because of this commitment Bertolucci used them not only in their capacity as actors, but also his assistant director, set designer and script supervisor all came from their group. La sua giornata di gloria (Bruno, 1968) was also shot in Rome that year. Director Edoardo Bruno was being influenced by many of the same cultural currents as Bertolucci, though he was also strongly influenced by Guy Debord and the Situationiste Internationale.

“In order to do this film we had to possess at least some of the elements needed for an eventual distribution. In our militant fervour we thought about Pierre Clémenti, who we admired and esteemed. Bertolucci guaranteed his presence. He came to Rome, but was really in the midst of that phase…Well, being a drug addict he actually spent more time in hospital than on the set. Bernardo had already gone crazy trying to manage him, though in the end he completed his film. I made him come over to Rome, but you see, whenever we had to get him for a shoot, we were told he wasn’t available. ‘He was taken into hospital, he felt sick yesterday . . .’ This ordeal continued for days, until, out of desperation, I turned to Bernardo and asked ‘What can I possibly do?’ He said ‘Look, I’ve got some raw, unedited footage.’ . . . By sheer chance, those sequences featured not only Clémenti, but also the same kids I employed in my film. So I gave it a try. I spent an entire day going through these rushes. I found a sufficient amount of footage, so I covered the segment I desired and most of all had to do because of the contract I signed with Cormons Film! So we declared on the opening credits that some of the footage was taken from a film made in 1968. Bernardo didn’t want to be mentioned on the credits.”4

The film was taken to the Berlin Film Festival where it made its debut in competition.

Garrel and Nico in Cicatrice

Clémenti was now also shooting his own films. La revolution n’est qu’un debut (1968), was a 16mm color silent 30 minute film, featuring Kalfon, Nicole Laguigne and Frédéric Pardo. Recording the events which led up to May 1968 and the fallout, and filmed against psychedelic images and slogans, Kalfon’s group (Les Jeunes rebelles) perform as Les Fabuleux Loukoms. His Visa de censure (1968), starring Johnny Hallyday, Yves Beneyton (La Dentelllière, Goretta, 1977) and Clémenti’s friend Etienne O’Leary (Chromo sud, 1968), is another psychedelic montage of images, special effects and rock music.

The films were produced by a young heiress called Sylvina Boissonnas who turned her back on her family’s superwealthy lifestyle and threw herself headlong into the distribution of free money for worthy film projects. Marc’O’s graduates had by now joined forces with people like the 20-year old Phillipe Garrel, Tina Aumont, Serge Bard (a Nanterre student of Ethnology who had abandoned his studies after the student uprisings), Zouzou, Caroline de Bendern (the British model who was disinherited by her family after she appeared in an emblematic photograph of May 68, carrying a Maoist flag, and seated on the shoulders of Jean-Jacques Lebel), Jackie Raynal (who later went on to programme at the popular Bleecker Street cinema in New York), and Daniel Pommereulle. These characters made up the core of Boissonnas’s film project, the Zanzibar Group, and were also referred to as “The Dandies of 1968”.

Bunuel cast Clémenti once more in La Voie lactée (1969), a surrealist road-trip in which he appears at the scene of a car crash, as a christ-devil claiming to have been responsible for the accident. Dressed in a high-collared white Nehru jacket and trousers, he is carrying a staff which could well have been the same one he sported so menacingly in Belle de jour. By this stage in his career, his mere presence triggered audience expectations: outlaw, diabolical, a menace to society, and beautiful. The more kinetic body language he had used in earlier roles such as Les Idoles and Partner now gave way to a more static posturing on screen. He upped the ante when, in 1969, Pasolini cast him in Porcile, in which he played a young cannibal condemned to a brutal death. He has very few lines, using achingly wanton body language to portray his visceral drive, “I slew my father, I’ve eaten the flesh of man, and I quiver with joy”.

In Philippe Garrel’s black and white Le Lit de la vierge (1969, prod. Zanzibar), in which Zouzou played the roles of both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, Clémenti was cast as a sort of hippie Jesus Christ. Music was provided again by les Jeunes rebelles, with a track by Nico. Clémenti plays a frail, haggard Christ unable to communicate his message to the world.

For Zouzou “Pierre is beauty in its purest state: a perfect body, tall, black curly hair, black eyes with long eyelashes, high cheekbones and an irresistible smile. He often dresses in black.” According to the actress, during filming in France, before they set off for Morocco, where filming continued, Clémenti fell off a cliff by accident and miraculously landed, alive and unscathed, in the sand, rescued only after Sylvina Boissonnas had called the fire brigade. During the course of filming however, Clémenti began to unravel, and ended up being admitted into a psychiatric ward in Rome. Friends of his indicated this was after he had found out that his wife Margaret was having an affair with Garrel.

Frédéric Pardo shot an accompanying super-8 black and white and colour 30 minute silent film entitled Home Movie: On the set of Phillipe Garrel’s Le Lit de la vierge. Influenced by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and Casper David Friedrich, Pardo’s movie is a celebratory salvo which documents the Garrel inner circle in Morocco in 1968 on the set of Le Lit. While the stars of the Garrel film were Clémenti and Zouzou, here in Pardo’s behind-the-scenes keyhole it is Garrel’s peripheral actors who take center stage: Pierre-Richard Bré, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Babette Lamy, and most prominently, Tina Aumont.

Clémenti’s next politically charged role came in Glauber Rocha’s Cabezas cortadas (1970) which was filmed in Cadaques (where Bunuel had shot L’Age d’or). A leading figure in the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, Rocha’s film depicts the social and political problems in dictatorial Latin America. The heavy political overtones secured it a mixed critical reception on its release. In conversation with Rocha, Miklos Jancso, Jean-Marie Straub and Simon Hartog in 1970, Clémenti expressed his horror at the current state of world cinema.

“Its fucked, the American cinema . . . until it reinvents a new filmic language. But under current conditions, all the big studios are wiped out . . . The cinema in France is becoming more and more alienated, more in harmony with TV, with the television chains. And I feel that a cinema that is really trying to relate to people, to alter their consciousness, will be pushed to one side.” 5

In Jancso’s La Pacifista (1970), he played a guilt-ridden anarchist struggling with his motives. At the same time he was also shooting for Yvan Lagrange’s two short films, La Leçon des choses and Renaissance, in which he stars alongside friends Valerie Lagrange and Zouzou, and he played Tiresia opposite Britt Ekland’s Antigone in Liliana Cavani’s I Cannibali. Not well-received critically, it was perhaps just another cinematic milestone in this productive year in Clémenti’s career, as, on top of all these roles with eclectic modern directors, he was also filming Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, which many perceive as the director’s breakthrough film, and certainly the one that brought him his first taste of great international acclaim.

Once again Clémenti plays a rough diamond; in this case a predatory chauffeur. In addition to these, he also filmed two more of his own underground shorts, Esméralda, and L’Ange et le demon, and he starred with Tina Aumont and Louis Walden in Franco Brocani’s dreamlike Necropolis. Still in the same year he found himself filming again with Garrel in La Cicatrice interieure, in which his son Balthazar also features.

The film revolves around an utterly lost and disorientated Nico, and her music supercedes the need for a proper script, should such a thing even have occurred to Garrel back in those days. Clémenti appears as a naked horseman/archer in the middle of a desert, which provides the entire backdrop to this most ethereal of films.

At this point then, he was at the peak of his career, at least in terms of output, but things were about to move in a strange direction. Shortly after filming with Brocani, Clémenti was arrested in July 1971 in Rome while staying in a friend’s apartment, on charges of drug possession. He was imprisoned for 16 months in Regina Coeli in Rome. The experience marked him profoundly. Many of his friends in the world of cinema believe he was really imprisoned for his political leanings, as he was very much on the side of the extreme Italian left, and it was the era of the Moro affair. His son, Balthazar, who answered the door to the police, believes he drugs were planted. It was in prison that he wrote his memoir, Quelques messages personnels (dedicated to Louis Aragon), which railed against the Italian authorities and its penal system, and also documented aspects of his working with various directors.

One of the witnesses in Clémenti’s trial was Federico Fellini, despite Clémenti’s earlier refusal to work with him on Satyricon.“He appeared to me to be an engaging person, who inspired friendship and tenderness, who looked for advice . . . a conscientious actor, in summary an exquisite man” (QMP) Fellini stated.

Clémenti greatly admired Fellini, though they had never managed to work together, as he greatly admired many other Italian filmmakers who he had worked with: Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, De Sica, Brocani, Cavani. Even at the height of his career he spent more time filming in Italy than in France.

“I believe they are the direct descendants of the spirit of the Renaissance. They have the sense of the beauty and the finesse, but they are not cut off from the people. They don’t conduct themselves like an elite, an aristocracy of artists who would live like parasites due to the largesse of the system, but they are nonetheless where it’s at. I believe that they really work for the Italian general public, that they know how to put their ancient and vast culture to the service of life.” (QMP)

On his release from prison, he was therefore devastated to find out he had to leave Rome as he was considered “undesirable” and “a threat to public order”.

While in prison he wrote to Philippe Garrel:

“I lead the life of a monk. The Holy Spirit often visits me, and helps me to accept human injustice like the cross that we all have to carry. Within these walls, the perfect vision of truth cannot be a lie. Who will believe that which I know, that the most beautiful human experiences are those held in solitude? I am thirsty for work, adventure, love. I’m thirsty for you, my friend. I’m thirsty for sincerity and truth – the reasons why I love you”. (QMP)

After his incarceration, it is generally acknowledged by both his friends and by critics that Clémenti gradually lost a great deal of his previous onscreen incandescence. He continued to work, fairly regularly, although he was no longer re-inventing new christ-devils to worship and fear. Nonetheless, his reputation and notoriety ensured he was still somewhat in demand. In L’Ironie du sort (Molinaro, 1973), he managed a self-assured lead role opposite Marie-Hélène Breillat. The film is an earlier version of Sliding Doors (Howitt, 1998), and in Molinaro’s version the parallel stories are told in black and white or in colour.

The following year, he appeared as Pablo in Fred Haines’s psychedelic adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. An almost return-to-form of Clémenti’s career, the film manages to combine stunning visual effects, such as Clémenti apparently crumpling Dominique Sanda in his hand like a piece of paper, with some poignant acting by Max Von Sydow as the eponymous Steppenwolf, all climaxing in some Schnabel-esque semi-mythological interludes.

After being shelved for years due to legal and distribution issues, the film was screened in 2000 in London, and was now described by Jenny Fabian in The Guardian as “perhaps too philosophical, too gothic for its time…The early special effects have a magic long since lost in the onslaught of computer animation.” 6

Richard Herland, the film’s producer found Clémenti a charming addition to the cast:

“Steppenwolf was mostly filmed in Basel. A one-franc tram ticket could take you from the French border, winding through the city, to the German side. Since most people spoke two languages, it seemed a third, English was no problem. In fact, Italian came a close fourth. Thus we decided to make an English-language film with a cast that were not native English speakers. My co-producer, Melvin Fishman, enjoyed saying that our Steppenwolf was the first film in broken English. Pierre challenged Fishman’s notion in that he seemed to have no foreign language skills. That, Melvin said, was perfectly in character for Pablo who communicated with music. Pierre did manage to speak a few lines learnt by rote. Of course, he did much more than that: Pierre infused Steppenwolf with magic.” 7

In 1976, he was back with Garrel and a formidable cast of counterculture players (Nico, Anita Pallenberg, Frédéric Pardo, Dominique Sanda and wife Margaret Clémenti ) in Berceau de cristal. The film portrays the various characters entering Nico’s dreamworld, including a scene with Pallenberg shooting up heroin on screen.

Clémenti described his autobiographical film New Old ou les Chroniques du temps présent (1979) as “my diary of my life before and after 1973″. The same year he played the title role in La Vraie histoire de Gérard Lechômeur (Joaquín Lledó, 1979) alongside Nico (both also provided original music). In the 1981 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Jean Rhys’s autobiographical novel, Quartet, he performed alongside Alan Bates, Maggie Smith and Isabelle Adjani as Theo the pornographer, a louche and manipulative character, and against a backdrop of 1920’s decadence and deceitfulness. At this point, his career become even more erratic, and he was performing only minor and less interesting parts for various directors, although his character in Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1982), which was co-written by his old friend Bulle Ogier and her daughter Pascale, who both also starred in this generally admired and beautiful ode to the city of Paris, was seen as both charismatic and potent.

It wasn’t until 15 years later though, with his starring role in Le Bassin de J. W. (Monteiro, 1997) that he succeeded in re-establishing himself as an actor and the film was considered a minor comeback, after which he went on to appear with Kate Winslet in Gillies Mackinnon’s adaptation of Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky (1998) which was, regrettably, to be his last cinema appearance.

Two years later he was dead.

Catherine Trautmann, then French Minister for Culture said in a press release following the anouncement of his death, “The camera will no longer show the emaciated face and the gangly silhouette of Pierre Clémenti, the low-key actor of auteur cinema and the star inspired by the avant-garde cinema of the 60s and 70s. In his life as in his work, Pierre Clémenti was not an ordinary person, he was an atypical idealist, groomed in the school of Pasolini, Visconti and Bunuel.”

“A mainstream career? I could have survived in mainstream films, but that wasn’t my story. I have no regrets. I don’t have the will to be part of films that don’t even deserve to be made… I’ve always worked alone and I ruined nothing but myself.” 8


Extracts are author’s translations from Clémenti, Pierre; Quelques messages personnels, Editions Gallimard, 2005
1 Zouzou. Jusqu’a l’aube. Flammarion, 2003 (author’s trans. from French)
2 Lagrange, Valerie. Mémoires d’un temps oů l’on s’aimait. Le Pré aux Clercs, 2005. (author’s trans. from French)
3 Fabien, Gerard; Bernardo Bertolucci. Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Roundhouse Publishing, 2000.
4 Bruno, Edouardo. Interview. NoShame Films, 2005. (author’s trans. from Italian)
5 A Conversation between Pierre Clémenti, Miklos Janscó, Glauber Rocha and Jean-Marie Straub convened by Simon Hartog in Rome, February 1970. Rouge, 2004.
6 Fabian, Jenny. “Jung Hearts Run Free.” The Guardian. April 21, 2000.
7 Herland, Richard. Correspondence with author.
8 Vincens, Bruno. Interview with Pierre Clémenti. L’Humanité. October 29, 1997. (author’s trans. from French)


This essay was first published in 2006 in Habits of Waste (HOW), a quarterly journal published at The Libraries, Western Washington University, Bellingham Washington.