Jean Yanne

Actor and satirist of a bitter humour
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Jean Roger Gouyé (Jean Yanne), actor, director, producer and screenwriter: born Paris 18 July 1933; married Mimi Coutelier (two children; marriage dissolved); died Morsains, France 23 May 2003.

The French actor and director Jean Yanne has no British equivalent. Best known overseas for his dramatic roles for everyone from Jean-Luc Godard (Week-End, the 1967 bad-taste traffic-jam comedy which seemed to predict the events of May 1968) to Jean-Luc Rappeneau's swashbuckling 1995 epic Le Hussard sur le toit (a.k.a. The Horseman on the Roof) via Claude Chabrol (the creepy thrillers Que la bête meure / This Man Must Die, 1969, and Le Boucher / The Butcher, 1970), Yanne wrote, produced, directed and starred in his own brand of satirical films which didn't travel well but drew huge audiences in his native France.

A grouchier, grumpier, grungier Gallic Peter Cook, the maverick Jean Yanne took no prisoners, aiming potshots at the French establishment, attacking the sacred cows of religion, politics and the rampant onslaught of consumerism as well as trade unions, the world of showbiz, fashion and advertising.

In the early Seventies, the bitter, brash and bullish humour of films such as Tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil (Everybody He is Nice, Everybody He is Beautiful, 1972), Moi y'en a vouloir des sous (Me, I Want to Have Dough, 1973) and Chobizenesse (Show Business, 1975) questioned the capitalist route French society was following but offered no real alternative. "Left-wing ideas expressed with a right-wing rethoric and I looked like a pathological idiot to boot," said Yanne self-deprecatingly when confronting critics.

A jack of all media and entertainment trades who had previously excelled as a gag-writer, humorist, lyricist, songwriter and broadcaster, he beautifully captured the puzzled mood of a country where bribery was rife and most of the media appointments were still made by central government.

In 1972, Yanne won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as the twisted film director torn between wife (Macha Méril) and mistress (Marlène Jobert) in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Will Not Grow Old Together), the autobiographical movie directed and written by Maurice Pialat. In typical irreverent Jean Yanne fashion, the actor failed to collect his award since he had fallen out with the director on set and was conveniently away in the United States at the time. Thirty-one years later, his death on Friday made Yanne the talk of Cannes once again.

Born in 1933, Jean Gouyé grew up in a working-class family which had left Brittany to settle near Paris. During the three years he spent doing military service in Algeria, he acquired a healthy and lasting disrespect for authority. On his return, he attended the Centre de Formation des Journalistes in the French capital, where he met Philippe Bouvard, a lifelong friend and regular sparring partner throughout a broadcasting career which started in the late Fifties and took in stints at commercial stations Europe 1 and RTL as well as the state-controlled ORTF television and radio.

In 1957, a chance encounter with a cabaret producer in Saint-Germain-des-Près had enabled the young Gouyé to put to good use some of the sketch ideas he had been developing. Finding his métier and his forte, he took up the Jean Yanne alias and began performing stand-up comedy while helping to devise shows for Line Renaud and Joséphine Baker. He also found time to compose pop songs and lyrics for a host of artists, most notoriously for Hector & Les Médiators, a satirical Sixties rock band giving the coffin-carrying antics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Screaming Lord Sutch a French twist in the yéyé era of Sheila, Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday.

Practically unstoppable, Yanne graduated to television with his sketch shows ridiculing the petit bourgeois traits of French life. Walking a tightrope throughout the de Gaulle and Pompidou years, the prolific Yanne claimed that, by 1975, he had written 6,000 topical songs and 800 sketches.

Having made his film début in 1964 with a small part in La Vie à l'envers (Life Upside Down), a comedy directed by Alain Jessua, Yanne hit his stride the following year playing a pimp in L'Amour à la chaîne (Tight Skirts, Loose Pleasures), a drama directed by Claude de Givray. He first worked with Claude Chabrol on the Resistance film La Ligne de démarcation (Line of Demarcation, 1966) but really caught the critics' eye with his chilling portrayal of Popaul, the eponymous murderous character of The Butcher.

By then, Yanne had appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's prescient Week-End (his disenchanted character is eaten by a revolutionary brigade) and the Gérard Pirès sex-comedy Erotissimo (1968). He mugged up in Georges Lautner's thriller manqué Laisse aller, c'est une valse (Troubleshooters, 1971) and Pirès' comedy western Fantasia chez les ploucs (Fantasia Among the Squares, 1971) before moving on to his own satirical projects.

Stuffed with argot and littered with in-jokes, Yanne films such as Les Chinois à Paris (Chinese in Paris, 1973), in which Communist China takes over Paris, Deux heures moins le quart avant Jésus-Christ (Quarter to Two Before Jesus Christ, 1982, the Nativity as a gladiator movie) and Liberté, égalité, choucroute (1984), his own take on the French Revolution featuring Ursula Andress alongside Jean Poiret and Michel Serrault, eventually ran out of targets as François Mitterrand came to power.

Still in demand as a character actor for Costa-Gravas (the polemical Hanna K. alongside Jill Clayburgh and Gabriel Byrne, 1983) and Claude Chabrol (the 1991 adaptation of Madame Bovary), Yanne who, in the Seventies had helped finance esoteric projects such as Lancelot du Lac (1974) by the French film-maker Robert Bresson as well as Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein (both 1974) by the Andy Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, became a tax exile and moved to California. "French cinema bores me shitless," he would tell journalists. "I'm in showbiz, so I live in Hollywood. If I was making nougat, I would live in Montélimar."

Over the last 15 years, Yanne developed his art and business interests but still managed to act in over 30 films, most notably playing God in Des nouvelles du bon Dieu (News from the Good Lord, 1995), the Count of Morangias in Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, directed by Christophe Gans in 2001) and another Count in Adolphe (2002). Gomez & Tavarès, a comedy thriller directed by Gilles Praquet-Brenner in which Yanne appears opposite the rapper Stomy Bugsy is currently showing in French cinemas while the actor had recently completed filming his role in Le Retour de James Bataille, a science-fiction epic directed by Didier and Thierry Poiraud and starring the singer and actress Vanessa Paradis.

Yanne also published two books: the award-winning Pensées, répliques, textes et anecdotes (1999, Prix Alphonse Allais) and the humorous Dictionnaire des mots qu'il y a que moi que les connais ("Dictionary of Words that Only I Know", 2000).

Interviewed in 1999 by the French film magazine Studio, Jean Yanne played down his acting abilities. "In order to look sad, all you have to do is lower your eyes," explained the actor who made a habit of portraying surly, caustic types. He also anticipated the national outpouring of grief which would follow his death:

There will be a lot of nonsense spoken by tearful friends and colleagues lamenting my passing. For the next 10 years, every time they show one of my films, there will be the inevitable tribute. I just hope that, in another hundred years, they don't show Tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil on the space shuttle.

Indeed, the television channel France 3 rearranged its weekend schedules in order to screen arguably his best film role as the murderer who falls in love with the local schoolteacher in Chabrol's The Butcher and an interview showcasing Yanne's barbed wit. "I might not have followed the usual show-business career but I've followed my instincts and I've had a great life. And it's not over yet . . ." he said. "By definition, the word freedom means there are no restrictions."

Pierre Perrone