Jean-Louis Trintignant racks his brain and tries and tries to remember if he ever had a sizzling love affair with Brigitte Bardot. “I have absolutely no recollection of it,” he finally mumbles, with a frown that quickly gives way to a Gallic grin.

It’s true, Trintignant’s memory does play absurd tricks on him, but it is equally true that the woman sitting across the room from him at the Algonquin—the striking Frenchwoman with auburn hair and huge dark eyes—is his wife, Nadine.

Besides, it’s been 15 years since the feverish filming of “And God Created Woman,” Roger Vadim’s overheated sex-boiler in which the solemn, then 24-year-old Trintignant stood around sulking while Bardot, his mini-toweled, mini-brained bride, was wolfed away by Christian Marquand, his flauntingly virile brother. A lot has happened since then: Trintignant now shares a cozy Parisian apartment—and His and Her mini-towels—with Marquand’s real-life sister, Nadine, whom he married in 1960, and he is the father of a lovely 9-year-old daughter.

But that’s not all that has happened. Trintignant, who is 5 feet 8 inches tall, dresses in a style that might be termed “fashionably fifties," has brown eyes and un-stylishly short hair, has also managed to make nearly 40 films in the last 15 years, including “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” “The Easy Life,” “The Sleeping Car Murders,” “Les Biches” and the current blockbuster “Z,” for which he was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance as the very proper, very persistent prosecutor. And “My Night at Maud’s” one of the triumphs of the 1969 New York Film Festival, opens today at the 68th Street Playhouse.

For most American moviegoers, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant is still the Man to Anouk Aimee’s Woman in “A Man and a Woman,” Claude Lelouch’s astonishingly popular love story, which was released here in 1966. Who could ever forget that lyrical moment when Anouk and Jean-Louis, the sexy widow and widower, finally—and nudily—gave in to all those pent-up passions in that lushly colored, lushly musical hotel room? Who could ever forget that moment? Jean-Louis Trintignant could, if anybody would give him half a chance.

“That was the worst scene in the movie,” Jean-Louis insists. His English is broken at best, and he is forced to rely on a very pretty young interpreter to help him register a passionate protest against that celebrated scene of passion. “It was embarrassing to find myself in bed with a woman that way. I had known Anouk for 10 years, and she was Nadine’s best friend, and the whole crew was watching...”

“And what if they had not been watching?” asks Nadine, her big eyes getting bigger. Her husband—modestly proportioned and gently dispositioned—may not conform to the classic image of the Continental Lover, but Nadine is well aware that Jean-Louis possesses what Hollywood used to refer to blushingly as “S.A.”

“Even kissing scenes bore me,” Jean-Louis says reassuringly. “Eroticism in movies today is too explicit. The most beautiful scene in ‘A Man and a Woman’ was when I was racing in Monte Carlo and Anouk was waiting in Paris, the cutting back and forth between my racing and Anouk’s worrying about me.”

For a man who is left cold by cinematic sex, Jean-Louis has been distressingly busy in the bedroom. An especially delicate boudoir situation—because of certain behind-the-scene subtleties—was the one with Stephane Audran in “Les Biches,” which was directed by her husband, Claude Chabrol.

“Chabrol has an enormous sense of humor,” Jean-Louis says, smiling uncertainly. “He would keep saying, ‘Please, Jean-Louis, put a little more into it...I would never ask an actor to do something I cannot do myself.’” (The kicker to the Chabrol joke was the fact that Jean-Louis himself had once been married to Miss Audran. Their marriage got bumpy at about the same time Jean-Louis got busy with  Bardot.)

There is one notable exception to Jean-Louis’s bedrooms-are-a-bore rule: the scene in “My Night at Maud’s,” in which he plays a stodgy, moralistic Catholic who, much against his Jesuitical judgment, is persuaded to spend a wintry night alone with a free-thinking divorcee. At first, he insists upon sleeping on a chair, but in the end he surrenders to the enticing warmth of Maud’s bed. To her incredulous despair, he shares nothing more than the bed and a sleepily chaste cuddle.

“I love that scene,” Jean-Louis says enthusiastically. “It was much more erotic than those I did with Catherine Spaak in ‘The Libertine.’ And if some people laugh because I did not have sex with Maud, well I would prefer being ridiculous to being thought a hero.”

“That’s true,” laughs Nadine. “Jean-Louis is that way in real life. He doesn’t want to be thought a hero. He has absolutely no vanity.”
Quite commendable, but a little confusing, too. One can’t help wondering—after the final fade-out has faded out—what makes Jean-Louis fun? Is he a lusty male who brings out the female animal in the likes of Aimee, Moreau, Audran, Signoret and Bardot? Or a dullard who keeps to his own side of Maud’s bed? A satyr or a square?

“It’s the ambiguity that makes Jean-Louis so fascinating,” Nadine says. “It’s what makes him a great actor.” And Nadine should know, since she has directed her husband in two films. The first, “Mon Amour, Mon Amour,” received a thunderous put-down at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. “It did not deserve to be invited to Cannes,” she says with appealing candor. “But it did not deserve to be booed, either.” Her second film, “The Thief of Crime,” stars Jean-Louis as a psychotic who witnesses a woman’s suicide and then writes anonymous letters to a newspaper in which he claims to have murdered the woman. When the paper stops publishing his letters, he has no choice but to go out and commit a real murder in order to get the attention he craves.

Obviously, that character is alien to Jean-Louis, who seems reluctant to tell the world of his private affairs. Not that the Trintignants are a couple of stick-in-the-muds; they are even intimate with the jaunty, jet-setting Vadims. Yet they prefer to keep their personal lives personal and to concentrate on their careers (Jean-Louis stars on stage, as well as in movies, and is set to play “Hamlet” in Paris next October). And they spend a great deal of time with their daughter Marie. Last year, the Trintignants’ infant daughter Pauline died in her crib. For a while, both Nadine and Jean-Louis withdrew into a world of overwhelming grief, and even now their friends are troubled by the intense torment they see just beneath the surface composure. The death of their daughter is not spoken of.
Jean-Louis does not identify strongly with any of the characters he has played on screen, least of all the unyielding Catholic of “My Night at Maud’s.” To Jean-Louis, who was brought up in a small town similar to the one in the film and who was educated a Catholic even though he stopped believing at he age of 6, the character was so repulsive that it took director Eric Rohmer two years to convince him that he should play it. “He represents everything in life that I hate. He is a horrible, completely mediocre man who is no less horrible and no less mediocre at the end of the film than he was at the beginning. He lies to his girl friend—not because he wishes her to feel guilty over the fact that she herself has slept with a married man. On the contrary, it is his vanity that makes him lie. He wants to say to his girl friend, ‘Yes, I did it, too!’”

Perhaps the role that best suited Jean-Louis was the amorous auto racer of ‘A Man and a Woman.” Not because of any special know-how behind the bedroom door, but because of his know-how behind the wheel. “I know about cars,” he says with intensity. “And I love them.”

Jean-Louis, who did his own driving in “A Man and a Woman”—who, in fact, talked Lelouch into making the hero of the film a racer instead of a doctor—has been car-crazy since childhood. After one of his five auto-racing uncles was killed in a race, Jean-Louis’s parents swore that their son would never race. But they could not prevent him from driving, altogether.

When I was 22, I still had never driven a car,” Jean-Louis recalls. “I was out riding one day with some friends when the driver became groggy and asked me if I would take over. I said sure, got behind the wheel and we were off. Suddenly we came to a curve and I remembered that you are never supposed to brake on a curve, so I accelerated instead. We went off the road, but nobody was hurt.

“I was 26 before I could afford to buy my own car. I drove 300 miles on the first day, and I screamed with delight all the way, even though I went off the side of the road two or three times. I could have killed myself, but I was wild with joy. Going fast in a car is an extraordinarily beautiful thing because it is one of the only ways of knowing exactly what one’s limits are. You can go just so fast, and beyond that you will die. It is very romantic and very dangerous. For me, driving fast is a sensuous pleasure.”

Thanks to his protective parents, Jean-Louis chose the not-so-sensuous profession of acting, which turned out to be something of an uphill race. “I am not a born actor,” he says thoughtfully. “At first, I was so shy that my shyness approached the point of sickness. When rehearsing a play, I would look down at the floor and recite my lines. Even today, I am not an instinctive actor. I prepare meticulously, and it is only when I am before the camera that I become completely free. Perhaps then I become an instinctive actor.”

And now that he has mastered the art of acting, Jean-Louis has decided to shift gears, at least temporarily, and become a director. “I’ll start directing my first film on Sept. 15, 1972,” he says, making it sound like the day after tomorrow. “I myself wrote the screenplay, but I will not appear in the film. I call it ‘A Full Day’s Work.’ It’s about a man who kills 12 people in one day. You could say that it is a heavy drama...but one with humor.”

It could be a laugh riot. And for thrills, it’s quite likely that Jean-Louis will stage at least one death-defying car chase through the twisting streets of Paris. But it’s not too likely that he will either bore or embarrass his actors with any of those nude love scenes.

That was then, and now--42 years after my interview with Trintignant--he is considered to be one of the world's greatest actors because of his powerful, superbly nuanced performances in Bertolucci's "The Conformist," Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red" and numerous other acclaimed films, including Michael Haneke's "Amour," the winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. His private life, however, has been touched by loss and tragedy. He and Nadine divorced in 1976, and their daughter Marie, a prominent actress, was killed by her boyfriend, Bertrand Cantat, at the age of 41. Cantat, a rock star, was found guilty of murder with indirect intent and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was paroled after half of that sentence had been served.--Guy Flatley