WHEN Alain Cuny triumphed in Paul Claudel's L'Annonce faite a Marie, in which he played the part of an architect, Pierre de Craon, at the play's first performance in 1944, Claudel told him: 'I have been waiting for you 20 years.' Cuny became the voice of Claudel, who said of him in a later play, Jean Vilar's production of La Ville: 'You are a living cathedral.' Indeed, Cuny's whole life lay under the star of faith.
Cuny hated his name, which belonged to a Breton peasant who had become his mother's lover. 'My half-brothers and sisters called me 'the bastard',' he tells us in a book of conversations, Le Desir de parole, (1989). It was the shame he felt that drove him to religion, to near-suicide at 19, to the psychoanalyst Laforgue, and finally to redemption in the theatre, where he became a great tragedian.
At the age of 16, he 1eft home and entered the Abbaye de Solesmes 'not as a retreat but as a place of refuge'. There he made the acquaintance of the poet Pierre Reverdy, who took care of him and later introduced him to Picasso, Braque, Masson and Balthus, who was to be one of his greatest friends. At first, Cuny too wanted to be a painter, and he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for a while: he drew and painted all his life. At the same time, he trained at a boxing gym in Pigalle, and designed posters for Feyder, Jean Epstein or Pabst, while working as a decorator for Renoir, Cavalcanti and other film directors.
Cuny became an actor by accident, through a beautiful Danish girl he met at a pavement cafe in Montparnasse. She was taking drama lessons from Charles Dullin and, impressed by Cuny's magnetic physical presence and his magnificent voice, she persuaded him to go with her to have an audition. Dullin accepted Cuny as his pupil and asked him to prepare a scene from John Ford's 'Tis Pity she's a Whore. Dullin was enthusiastic, and told him: 'You can have the highest hopes of a career in the theatre.'
Cuny's first engagement was in a big success, Jean Giono's Le Bout de la route at the Theatre des Noctambules in 1941. His next big role was in L'Annonce faite a Marie. But Cuny also appeared in Jean Anouilh's Eurydice in 1944. The actress Edwige Feuillere tells us in her memoirs that Cuny was considered by Jean Giraudoux for the part of the archangel - a part he was eminently suited to both physically and spiritually - in Sodome et Gomorrhe, in 1943, but that the role went to someone else: Cuny was already becoming difficult to work with. But he got his first big chance in the cinema in Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du soir (1942) in which he played Gilles, the ill- fated troubadour to Marie Dea as Ana his beloved, with Arletty as Dominique, and Jules Berry as the Devil. He went on to play Macbeth, then Oreste in Jean Marais's production of Andromaque (1944).
One of Cuny's greatest friends and literary heroes was Antonin Artaud, whose texts he read with supreme conviction at a time when Artaud was more or less an outcast, a situation reflected in Artaud's Van Gogh ou le suicide de la societe, which Cuny interpreted in his voice's fabulous organ tones.
He joined Vilar's Theatre National Populaire in 1955, and it was Cuny's playing of Thesee in Phedre in 1957 that inspired Roland Barthes to write, in Sur Racine: 'Cuny does not chop up the meaning, he does not chant his lines. His diction is defined by a pure self-awareness as simple as the words he speaks,' and goes on to contrast Cuny's approach with that unreal stagey presence affected by 'actors imprisoned in Racine's bourgeois myth'. Two years later, at the Odeon, under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault, Cuny played Simon Agnel in Claudel's Tete d'or. There were also appearances in plays by Ugo Betti, Pirandello; at the Carcassonne Festival in 1966, TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral provided him with the superb part of Thomas a Becket. The last play he appeared in was Strindberg's Dance of Death in 1972.
Directors fought shy of Cuny's exacting standards and his incandescent personality: he made no secret of the fact that he despised all directors and actors, and that he preferred the company of poets and painters. He was unique in his approach to character: 'I do not like myself on stage. I hate my wrinkles and grimaces. I want to irradiate the stage like a polished stone, I want my face to become a mask . . .' He always tried to go beyond mere sensibility and emotivity, the superficial expression of fleeting emotions.
So he became more and more involved in the cinema, playing for Francesco Rosi in Uomini Contro (1970) and Cadaveri eccellenti ('The Mattei Affair') in 1975. In 1979 he was in Rosi's Si e fermato a Eboli ('Christ Stopped at Eboli') and in 1987 the unsatisfactory Chronicle of a Death Foretold based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One of his best roles was in Fellini's La dolce vita (1959), in which he played Marcello Mastroianni's bohemian intellectual friend Steiner with frigid irony. He was also in Fellini's Satyricon (1969), and in Just Jaeckin's pink pornography Emmanuelle (1974) - a part he accepted to show how little he thought of the movies, and also to earn money for his great project, the filming of L'Annonce faite a Marie, started in the Sixties and not finished until 1991.
He played in other movies - Jean-Luc Godard's Detective (1984) and Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel (1988) - but the last years of his life were spent giving readings of his favourite authors: Artaud, Reverdy, Claudel and - memorably at last year's Festival d'Avignon - the poetry of Louis- Rene des Forets. He was the very voice of tragedy, and the very heart and soul of the French theatre, a colossus, an ogre, a saint, and, as Just Jaeckin said: 'A force of nature . . . Herculean.'
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