Patrice Chéreau: Film, theatre and opera director hailed for his Bayreuth Ring Cycle and for 'La Reine Margot'


Patrice Chéreau, who has died of lung cancer, is probably best known internationally for two films, La Reine Margot, his blood-soaked acccount of religious conflict in 16th century France, and Intimacy, his sexually explicit adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel. In his native France he is revered above all for his work in the theatre, but his greatest achievement was his four-year Ring Cycle at Bayreuth.

Set in the Industrial Revolution, and spread over four years, from 1976-80, it left audiences bitterly divided. In Bayreuth, A History of the Wagner Festival, Frederic Spotts wrote: "On opening night there were bloody brawls, Wolfgang Wagner's new wife had her dress ripped and another woman had her earring torn off – and the earlobe with it. There were death threats and bomb threats; friendships and marriages were said to have been broken." But the production, with Pierre Boulez as music director, led the way in putting opera into challenging contemporary settings. On its final performance in 1980 it received a 45-minute ovation.

He was born in the lap of the arts, his father Jean-Baptiste Chéreau a painter, his mother, Marguerite Pelicier, a graphic designer. He grew up in Paris, where his father used to take him to the Louvre. From an early age he showed a passionate interest in the cinema, theatre, painting and music, and at the age of 12 he was designing sets for the plays he read.

He read German at the Faculte des lettres de Paris, where he joined the militant youth of the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifie) and attended courses in acting and production. In 1965 the student drama festival in Nancy he presented his first production of Marivaux, L'Heritier de village, and in 1966 Bernard Sobel invited him to work in his theatre at Gennevilliers in a working-class suburb of Paris.

With Sobel, Patrice mounted a musical comedy based on the Labiche farce L'Affaire de la rue de Courcine, in which the bourgeois characters dream they are crooks and at the end wake up greatly relieved to find they are respectable citizens after all. In a superb gesture characteristic of Chéreau's handling of even the most sacred texts, he cut this reassuring ending, creating a very black comedy, a condemnation of petty bourgeois hypocrisy. His work with Sobel led to his being appointed director of the Theatre de Sartrouville, another industrial suburb of Paris.

The ambitious nature of Chéreau's plans for Sartrouville showed idealism and inventiveness. He wanted his theatre to be a municipal commodity like a hospital, school or sports arena. His theatre became a social endeavour, a focal point for a wide variety of activities with cinema, concerts, poetry productions, lectures and debates about everything from politics to pot.

The same audacity was apparent in his productions, in which he worked with a team he made his own in many future ventures: costumes by Jacques Schmidt, décor by Richard Peduzzi, lighting by Andre Diot, with Chéreau working backstage. The public began to flock to his theatre, but in 1969 it ran into financial difficulties and he resigned, disillusioned with the concept of "theatre populaire". He spoke with blazing honesty about the theatre as the tool of class culture and the upper classes, saying it was now impossible to create a working-class theatre like the German agitprop movement of the 1930s. But he never abandoned completely his progressive social ideals.

For his first opera, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri for the Spoleto Festival, he employed his usual team. In 1970 he was invited to Marseilles to produce Richard II, a character he felt deep sympathy with, identifying himself so intimately with him that when the actor playing Richard gave up the part Chéreau took it on. He and his team worked for a couple of years at the Piccolo Teatro de Milan, producing Pablo Neruda's "revolutionary oratorio" The Splendour and Death of Joaquin Murieta.

Back in Paris Chéreau was invited by Roger Planchon to share the direction of the Théâtre de la Cité at Villeurbanne. He was conscious of the revivifying power of the boards, and often used earth, sand, water or mud that his actors would pace out and trample in rehearsal to familiarise themselves completely with that "earth spirit" that gave truth to their movements, for he believed that finding the right way to move in a part was the secret of its authenticity. In the 1973 production of Marivaux's La Dispute, the young lovers roll and moan in the sand, grass and water like wild animals while the snobs of the court in high heels and formal clothes pick their way delicately towards clean, dry, elevated positions.

In 1974 he made his first film, La chair de l'orchidee (The Flesh of the Orchid), based on James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish with a starry cast including Charlotte Rampling in the title role giving a performance of extraordinary intensity. It was an almost operatic version of the misunderstood 1948 British film.

In 1975 he produced Edward Bond's Lear as a kind of personal howl of despair, set in a derelict industrial landscape strewn with piles of slag, with Lear as a Baron Krupp in evening dress and top hat. Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth took four years of his life, from 1976 to 1980, during which he also was able to make his second film, Judith Therpauve, create the final integral version of Alban Berg's Lulu at the Opera de Paris and participate in the foundation of a progressive, militant intellectual and artistic group, AIDA, (Association Internationale de Defense des Artistes). He always made copious notes on the progress of rehearsals and textual analyses, and it is fortunate that his direction of Lulu has been recorded in a small book, Si tant est que l'opera soit du theatre (If Opera can really be Considered as Theatre).

In it one can detect a certain weariness of heart and growing dislike of the dramatic form of grand opera. Certainly the hard work connected with his Wagner productions and the hostility aroused by his unconventional treatments and unusual castings had worn him out. But he directed an amazing Peer Gynt for Villeurbane and Paris in 1981. "After Bayreuth," he said, "I felt the need to work on a theatrical project of some breadth... I have never put on little things. I am interested only in spectacles that rise above themselves". He had considered Goethe's Faust, but chose Ibsen. As in his Wagner productions, he sought, he said, "an incandescence of theatrical experience, a global spectacle." Some critics felt he was suffering from megalomania, but the result was an unforgettable triumph.

Chéreau's boundless energies were expended further that year when he played Camille Desmoulins in Wajda's Danton, alongside Gérard Depardieu in the title role. In 1982, he was at last given, after years of wandering from theatre to theatre, his own stage, the Theatre des Amandiers at Nanterre. He felt finally that he had come home, and that he could settle down to years of sustained creation. The same year he made his third film, L'Homme Blessé (The Wounded Man), a subject with which he identified completely.

The film's writer, Herve Guibert, was a close friend who had often interviewed him, and was able to draw out Chéreau's secret self as no other writer had done. In a 1977 interview in Les Nouvelles Litteraires he told Guibert, "I describe the things I want to see or the lives of people whose secrets I want to penetrate. I have long since given up trying to teach audiences a lesson ... it is more urgent, it seems to me, to simply try to describe things very exactly, or to show precisely how characters behave, and why, to interest myself in all kinds of personalities – and to make them live on stage." Chéreau collaborated closely with Guibert on the scenario and the film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

In 1983 Chéreau mounted the first production of a new writer with whom he will forever be associated, Bernard-Marie Koltès. The play was Combat de Nègre et de Chien; the meeting of Chéreau and Koltès might be compared with the meeting between Verlaine and Rimbaud, each giving the other something they had lacked in emotion and intellectual passion. Koltès became the idol of the critics and the younger generation of French theatre enthusiasts, and Chéreau went on to produce most of his plays. In 1984 he directed Mozart's Lucio Silla at La Scala, yet found time and energy to play the part of Napoleon in Youssef Shahine's film Adieu Bonaparte, hailed by critics as a brilliant portrayal of the hero during his Egyptian campaign.

His 1994 film La Reine Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil, was a box office success at home and abroad and won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Dealing with the marriage of convenience between the Catholic Margot (Adjani) and the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Auteuil), it was erotic and violent, and offers poured in from Hollywood, but, he said, "I was always being offered films based in the Renaissance and involving a massacre," he recalled. "I even had an offer from the UK to do a film about Guy Fawkes."

Intimacy (2001), starring Mark Rylance, Timothy Spall and Marianne Faithfull, was a tale of sexual obsession which sparked a debate about unsimulated sex on screen. But, Chéreau said, "It is not like a porno film, not at all erotic sometimes, but it is beautiful because it is life."

In 2007 Chéreau teamed up with Daniel Barenboim for Tristan und Isolde at La Scala. The conductor called him "my ideal partner" and said he "breathed new life" into the opera, with its sparse choreography and industrial sets. He made a belated US debut at the Met in 2009 with Janacek's From the House of the Dead.

In 2011 he lit up the Avignon Festival with a production of Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind that had played at the Young Vic, his first UK production. Stylistically daring and stripped-back, it attained a hypnotic intensity. His final production, Richard Strauss's Elektra at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July, won a standing ovation. The production has been scheduled for the Met's 2015-16 season.

Although he was gay, it wasn't a theme he dwelt on. "I never wanted to specialise in gay stories, and gay newspapers have criticised me for that," he said. "Everywhere love stories are exactly the same. The game of desire, and how you live with desire, are the same."

Patrice Chéreau, actor, producer and theatre, opera and film director: born Lezigne, Maine-et-Loire 2 November 1944; died Paris 7 October 2013.

James Kirkup died in 2009. This obituary has been updated.

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