Depardieu: A force of Nature

France’s best-known star is in Edinburgh.

by Richard Mowe

Gérard Depardieu:
Gérard Depardieu: "We all have compulsion and I do understand impulses that make you crazier and crazier. " Photo: Richard Mowe

He’s regarded as a national treasure by some and an occasional volatile embarrassment to his country and craft by others. Gérard Depardieu, one of French cinema’s few globally recognised names, arouses strong passions within himself, the family circle and in the wider world.

With a visit to the Edinburgh International Film Festival planned this weekend (28 June) for the UK première of Abel Ferrara’s Welcome To New York, his controversial portrayal of a character clearly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced head of the International Monetary Fund who is alleged to have assaulted a maid in a New York hotel, we take the pulse of Depardieu’s iconic status.

His face looks as if it had been assembled in a rush then given a pugilistic pounding for good measure. The prominent nose seems to be made of putty, the lank hair flops around with a life of its own while the jowls hang rather loose. His weight has ballooned, giving the impression of a lumbering "force de la nature" as the French would say.

Gérard Depardieu:
Gérard Depardieu: "I'm an honest person, totally, and that can be disconcerting." Photo: Richard Mowe

Depardieu’s massive frame always make an entrance, even if he tries to be discreet. After a career of four decades and more than 180 films and television productions he has earned his status as a national icon even if the bad boy image persists.

It is easy to see why he was attracted to the challenge of financier Devereaux (the DSK character in Ferrara’s film). He told me at the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere: “I was intrigued by its exploration of lust. It showed that one is not necessarily responsible for that lust, and in a way I pity those who suffer from such a condition. We all have compulsion and I do understand impulses that make you crazier and crazier. In all of us we know there is a monster there – something not quite normal.”

Depardieu stressed in Cannes that although he had Strauss-Kahn "in the back of my mind at all times" during the shoot, the intention was "absolutely not to be like him, to look or sound like him".

Famously he lists his occupation on his passport as “viniculteur” (winegrower) rather than actor, a nod to another of his passions, wine growing. He has a dozen vineyards in the Anjou area, personally overseeing the harvesting and production. He markets such labels as Cuvée Cyrano, named after what many would consider his greatest role as the lovelorn swordsman with the large probobcis. Cyrano De Bergerac revealed him as this gentle giant with an underpinning of vulnerability. He made his mark by winning an Oscar nomination as best actor for the role in 1990 although accusations of a gang rape in his dim and distant youth scuppered his chances of winning through.

His Cyrano director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who also worked with him on Bon Voyage with Isabelle Adjani, once suggested that Depardieu suffers “from a bulimia of work, of life.” He likens his approach to that of “a lion leaping from his cage,” but the apparent spontaneity masks performances of great precision even although the actor denies undertaking any intricate research process.

Part of Depardieu’s strategy is that he likes to be on set the whole time, even when he is not required. Francis Veber who directed him in the gay-themed comedy The Closet and on Tais Toi / Shut Up with Jean Reno , says all this hanging around provides him with “his oxygen.” His 1974 breakthrough was in Bertrand Blier’s Les Valseuses in which he was cast as a young thug prone to car theft and GBH; a role many thought was autobiographical.

Depardieu loves the female of the species and his “amours” have included Carole Bouquet and Fanny Ardant. “I’ve always found women more interesting than men – in every sphere. They have better values,” he says, speaking from considerable experience.

Depardieu’s personal history seems to be as chequered as some of his on-screen creations. Born in 1948 as the third of six children in the industrial town of Chateauroux in Central France, he escaped an alcoholic father and uncaring and under-educated mother and all the trappings of an unhappy childhood, troubled adolescence and dysfunctional upbringing by running away to live with two prostitutes who took him in.

As a youth he hitch-hiked around France before settling in Paris, where he joined the Theatre National Populaire, a repertory company. It was there that he met his wife Elisabeth Guignot, an acting student who was seven years his senior. She provided an entrée into the world of cinema, introducing him to such directors as François Truffaut and Bertrand Blier. They had two children together, Guillaume and Julie. Depardieu had a third child, Roxanne (after the female character in Cyrano de Bergerac), with the model Karine Sylla.

He and Elisabeth divorced in 1996 over his infidelities and also his reckless lifestyle. He has been in three motorcycle accidents, one of which involved a blood alcohol level five times above the legal limit. He has undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery but, nothing daunted, still drinks considerably, smokes Gitanes, and indulges his gastronomic appetites.

Besides his vineyards, Depardieu has a restaurant in Paris, Le Fontaine Gallion, near the old Opera House, frequented by the likes of Jean Reno, Isabelle Adjani, and Johnny Hallyday. It was designed by Bouquet, his former partner of ten years whom he met on Bertrand Blier’s Trop Belle Pour Toi / Too Beautiful for You. The conjunction of the svelte ex-face of Chanel and the larger than life “force de la nature,” as he is often described, seemed incongruous yet the relationship survived for a decade. By 2006, he'd had a second son, Jean, with the French-Cambodian actress Hélène Bizot before a liaison with the Harvard-educated novelist Clémentine Igou.

Depardieu used to move among France’s political and social elite but his decision to become a Russian citizen to avoid paying the high taxes demanded by François Hollande’s Government attracted much criticism from both the public and the Establishment.

In recent years he has had to cope with the death of his son 37-year-old Guillaume, also an actor of some distinction who contracted a bacterial infection in hospital after a motor-cycle accident caused the amputation of a limb. He died in 2008 after developing viral pneumonia on location in Romania. Guillaume wrote a controversial book about their relationship. He branded his “père” as a womaniser and a liar, prompting Depardieu Snr to proclaim at the time that he was fed up with being “the trash bin where he dumps whatever he wants to be shot of. I’ve made mistakes but I am not the monster that he portrays. I don’t bear him any grudges.”

They appeared together on screen in Alain Corneau’s 1991 Tous Les Matins Du monde playing the young and old versions of the main character, Marin Marais.

Depardieu’s daughter Julie, 41, has been less troublesome, with a career of nearly 30 films and television dramas to her credit. He has said she has inner strengths which “have allowed her to overcome a great deal.”

Although Depardieu is known as a meticulous performer he shrugs off the notion of any deliberate preparation for a role. “It’s all instinctive,” he says. “I don’t really work at a part. I’m an honest person, totally, and that can be disconcerting. Even I find it a bit worrying because I can never manage to deceive people.”

For an actor involved in the promulgation of deception and artifice, that has to be one of the most difficult burdens to carry – which perhaps also explains the secret of Depardieu’s enduring raw chemistry.

Welcome to New York screens at EIFF on 28 June at the Dominion at 17.30 and comes out in the UK and Ireland on 8 August on a multi-platform release.

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