Jean Carmet was one of several French film players who graduated to leading roles in movies after a couple of decades at the job. The most obvious examples are Bourvil and Louis de Funes, who became box-office attractions in their own right. Their Gallic ordinariness endeared them to local audiences, and Carmet was even more ordinary. I would liken him rather to Rene Lefevre in the Thirties or Julien Carette in the Forties - all of them small in stature, morose, moustached and imperturbable, often bespectacled. They were the flic, the barman, the commercial traveller.
Yves Boisset acknowledged this when he cast Carmet in the title- role of Dupont Lajoie (1975). Lajoie was the patron of a Paris bar, and his Christian name was in fact Georges; but by calling him Dupont he became a French John Doe. He goes to a camping in the Midi with his wife - the sort of holiday place where they have the local equivalent of It's a Knockout; while that is going on Lajoie sees a girl (Isabelle Huppert) sunbathing in a lonely spot - the daughter of friends. A roving eye has been established; he tries to kiss her and then attempts rape. In resisting, she is killed.
The film is Boisset's best excursion into Chabrol territory, but it is not only murder he has on his mind. As Boisset observed, there were 24 racial murders in France in 1974. In his film, an Arab worker is suspected of the murder, and Lajoie works himself up into such a xenophobic frenzy that he eventually begins to believe that the Arab is guilty. The film, which begins as a satirical comedy, has become a study of the French everyman as
Carmet made over 200 films, beginning with a small role in 1944 in Les Enfants du Paradis, but it was not until the Sixties that he began to move up the cast list, notably in one of the last and best of Jean Renoir's films, Le Caporal Epingle (1962), which made a Fred Karno's army of a group of French POWs in Germany. Jean-Pierre Cassel had the title-role, and Carmet was one of his band of copains - reminiscing fondly about his work as a farmer. Renoir gave him another plum role in Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (1969), a four-part film made for television which was shown in cinemas overseas. Carmet is in the last episode, set in the Midi, as the doctor with whom Francoise Arnoul falls in love. He is her own age, while her husband, Fernand Sardou, is so much older; after initial misgivings Sardou finds himself accepting their relationship - and it was with this affectionate study of a menage a trois that Renoir bade farewell to us.
Carmet fitted equally well into that world of Chabrol's - that territory of malice, neurosis, infidelity, deceit and cruelty, where extraordinary things happened to ordinary people. In La Rupture (1970) he was the husband of a Brussels landlady, a secret and relentless drinker. He was the manservant of kindly old Charles Vanel in Alice ou La Derniere Fugue (1977), a failed attempt to do a modern version of Lewis Carroll, but luckier with Violette Noziere (1977), one of the several films which seemed to mark Chabrol's return to his best form. This was based on an actual murder case of 1933, with Isabelle Huppert as the wilful, syphilitic teenager who plans to murder her parents - Stephane Audran and Carmet, a particularly dull and insensitive man.
In Buffet Froid (1979) he claimed himself to be a killer, thus chumming up with a lout, Gerard Depardieu. They became friends in real life, culminating in a joint appearance at the Cesars ceremony - the French Oscars - in February this year. Last year Carmet played Depardieu's father in Yves Robert's film of Zola's Germinal, which opens in London next month. The old man, nicknamed 'Bonnemort', has been working in the mines so long that his very spittle is black. He is one of the few members of the family alive at the end, if by then mad. He is gruff and hardened in a film which is long and somewhat less rewarding than Robert's two films recreating Marcel Pagnol's childhood, Le Gloire de Mon Pere (1991) and Le Chateau de Ma Mere. The players, wonderfully cast, are mostly unknown, but the second movie has three well-known actors in cameo roles - one of whom was Carmet, in a ripe turn as a ferociously unfriendly watchman.
He won two Cesars, for Robert Hossein's Les Miserables (1992), with Lino Ventura as Javert, and for Merci La Vie in 1992. His appearance at this year's ceremony was to collect an award for what the Hollywood Academy calls 'lifetime achievement'.