ARTS THE GRAND ILLUSIONIST

Grard Depardieu is France's greatest and most prolific actor. Here, in an exclusive interview, he talks to Kevin Jackson
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The Independent Culture
JOHN UPDIKE made the point most pithily: "I think that I shall never view / A French film without Depardieu". The rhyme could stand a little fine-tuning, but it's hard to fault the accuracy of his little aperu. In the course of the late Seventies and early Eighties, Grard Depar-dieu, the third son of an illiterate sheet-metal worker from a dreary town out in the sticks near Poitiers, established himself not only as a domestic star on the scale of a Gabin or Belmondo, but as the reassuringly bulky foundation stone for his nation's entire film industry. To the outsider, it seemed as if the French government must have introduced a mandatory Depardieu quota.

Throughout those years, whether the auteur of a given film was Ber-trand Blier or Alain Resnais, Fran-ois Truffaut or Claude Berri, Serge Gainsbourg or Jean-Jacques Beineix, you could lay odds that the star at the centre of the frame would have a lumpy, rough-hewn mug, a jutting, bulbous nose, a still more prominent belly, and the christian name Grard. Today, at 46, Depardieu has completed, by his own reckoning, 90 films. At his present rate of production - around three films a year - he should easily manage his own century by the end of ours.

A hyper-trophied CV isn't his only extraordinary dimension, however. For one thing, he's the only French actor bankable in Hollywood - with Green Card, 1492 and My Father the Hero - and this despite a nasty run- in with the American press a few years ago, after Time magazine reprinted an old interview in which Depardieu appeared to be confessing that the misdemeanours of his semi-criminal childhood included a spot of gang rape. (The charge turned on a wobbly translation of the French verb "assister "; Depardieu had, he later clarified, not participated in a rape when he was nine, but witnessed one.)

That particular dust-cloud appears to have settled, and though the international press still laps up gossip about the actor, he's once again free to enjoy another singular distinction. Depardieu is the only movie star of any nationality who can plausibly appear as a romantic lead, not to say sex god, despite the heroic proportions of his waistline. (Some of my women friends, hearing that I was about to meet the man, asked me not to wash my hand after it had shaken the Depardieu paw.)

Perhaps Depardieu's most unexpected achievement, though, is the sheer range and diversity of his career, which can seem not so much catholic as chaotic. He's played in asinine farces, sober middlebrow epics, anguished existential dramas and rarefied effusions of the avant-garde, all apparently with equal engagement, all without shedding either popular appeal or long- term critical approval. Those 90-odd movies contain more than their share of tripe, but the world's leading directors are still gagging to work with Depardieu - even if the "cultural terrorists" of the French intelligentsia have repeatedly attacked him for just this cheerfully indiscriminate approach to his art.

"Cahiers du Cinema [the French film magazine] accuses me of eclecticism for doing Marguerite Duras [the intellectual novelist and director of Le Camion] and Claude Zidi [the lowbrow farceur] at the same time. But why? It's all cinema. I say to them - you are just thinkers, you think about celluloid, but I put my stamp on it, I'm a printer. I adore tragedy, I adore boulevard theatre, I love to hear people laughing. Intellectuals give me a pain in the ass." Pause. "Though I must admit that sometimes I can be a pain in the ass myself."

Depardieu's blithely untroubled attitude about the brow height of his projects can currently be inferred from the contrasting nature of the two films that are top of his chore list at the moment. He's in New York filming Bogus, a Norman Jewison movie in which his co-star is Whoopi Gold- berg: "It's a comedy about a six-year-old child . . . I play a character who's part of the child's imagination, that no one but him can see. This little child has lost his mother, he's sad, but one day he draws a mouth, and the mouth starts to talk, saying `Bigger!' `Wider!' And gradually I start to appear out of the drawing. It's a nice subject."

BUT THE reason Depardieu has agreed to an interview now, somewhat reluctantly - he's said not to care for them much at the best of times, and to hold the anglophone press in particular suspicion after the Time affair - is the imminent release of Le Colonel Chabert. This is the directorial dbut of the cinematographer Yves Angelo, adapted from the short novel by Balzac, in which Depardieu takes the title role of a rich officer, wounded and left for dead in the Napoleonic wars. After years of suffering, he finally fights his way home to claim his identity, his fortune and his wife (Fanny Ardant), only to discover that she has remarried and refuses to acknowledge his return from the dead. "I can only talk about things when I'm passionate about them," Depardieu explains, "and that's why I pushed for Colonel Chabert to be made, because I'm passionate about Balzac." His passion extends to a degree of self-identification with the prolific author, "though I hope I'll live longer than he did."

Even allowing for this desire to sell a film that is closer than usual to his heart, Depardieu makes a slightly daunting interview prospect, what with his prop-forward build and his reputation, deserved or otherwise, for burning on a short fuse. Depardieu was a semi-professional boxer as well as a bit of a thug in his day, and it's by no means certain that wealth and middle age have entirely calmed him. One press report from a couple of years ago, strenuously denied by his publicists, represented Depardieu ad-ministering a silencing blow to a hotel pianist whose music was getting on his nerves. What will it take to earn one of the actor's knuckle sandwiches tonight? Too keen an interest in the rape business? Tactless queries about his young mistress, or his son's arrest on a heroin charge? An ill-judged remark about the advisability of remaking the mildly diverting Mon Pre ce Hros as the dumb-witted My Father the Hero?

Foolish misgivings. In the event, Depardieu could scarcely be more civil or more disarming. Slightly shorter than he appears on screen - perhaps 5ft 10ins - and a couple of stones lighter than in his recent appearances, he greets me and our interpreter (the animation director Jean-Pierre Jacquet) with a quiet, almost diffident "enchant". Though he chomps his way through bowls of bar snacks with appropriately Balzac-ien appetite, he confines his liquid nourishment to a modest glass or two of iced vermouth. He responds to our questions seriously and thoughtfully, growing more animated and even vehement as he warms to particular themes. When the interview is formally over, he's happy to sit around for another 40 minutes or so shooting the breeze, calling us by the friendly "tu" form, and expatiating on cultural topics from Epstein to Einstein. He is, in a word, a charmer, and there's not so much as a hint of the sullenness, the caprice or the seething, anarchic rage some have found in him.

Indeed, though there's a tenacious clich about Depardieu being like a truck driver with the soul of a romantic poet, on this evening's showing he'd definitely be far more at home with an inky quill than behind the wheel of a three-tonner. Once he gets going, the most striking thing about the actor is neither his ski-slope nose nor his overgrown pudding-basin coiffure, but his talk: vivid, idiosyncratic, eccentric, even to French ears. When M Jacquet compliments him on an unusually colourful turn of phrase, the actor replies, "It's because I was never taught how to speak."

And the following day, listening back to our conversation at greater leisure, Jacquet stops the tape again and again to point out how strangely and arrestingly Depardieu puts things - a gutsy, entertaining way of speaking which transforms even relatively banal observations. For example, remarking on what he sees as the aesthetic decline of Jean-Luc Godard, for whom he once played the part of God, he says: "His films don't fit him any more - his voice is fading." Or, of his reluctance to act on stage: "I don't have the energy at the moment for theatrical thought."

He's also generous with aphorisms: "Grace is forgetfulness"; "Wine leads to everything." (The actor has a thriving second career as a vineyard owner, enthusiastically producing and consuming Chteau de Tigne from the grounds of his 14th-century estate in Anjou.) And sometimes, he will put an unexpected spin on an otherwise formulaic sentence by changing a single word. Recalling with pleasure his role in Truffaut's Le Dernier Mtro, he reflects, "It's hard to tell a good love story because they've all been . . . not told, but . . . lived."

This, it appears, is the uncommon eloquence of a man who was once tongue- tied. For the space of about two years in his violent youth, Depar-dieu became quite literally incapable of speech. "I was hyper-emotional," he explains, using a broadcasting metaphor: "My emotions scrambled my emissions. I did not have the words to express myself, so I spoke in onomatopoeia, like a caveman."

A GIFTED therapist brought him back to words, using the music of Mozart and the poetry of de Musset. Literature, he now believes, saved him from the nightmare of a lifetime's speechless frustration. "Thanks to literature, I learnt to read, and then I learnt to speak, and so to communicate and then to rebase energies in myself which had been rather negative." Before long, he had joined up with the Thtre National Populaire in Paris, made his screen dbut at the age of 16 in Roger Leenhardt's short Le Beatnik et le Minet (1965) and met his wife-to-be, Elisabeth Guignot, now a psychotherapist herself.

By 1970 he was working regularly in the cinema as well as on stage, but his breakthrough performance did not come until 1974, when he played one of a pair of feckless yobboes in Bertrand Blier's rancid, randy comedy Les Valseuses (1974). Keenly impressed by Blier's exceptional gift for "juicy dialogue" - he is not alone in considering it "like Shakespeare in its sexuality, its force, its truth" - he went on to work in several more of the director's films: Prparez Vos Mouchoirs (1977), Buffet Froid (1979), Mnage (Tenue de Soire) (1986), Trop Belle Pour Toi (1989) and Merci la Vie (1991). (He implies, however, that he is not quite such an admirer of Blier's later efforts: "nowadays he's into abstraction, explosions . . .")

Depardieu's international art-house reputation really took off with Bertolucci's 1900 (1975), and blossomed through the likes of Resnais's My American Uncle (1980), Daniel Vigne's The Return of Martin Guerre (1981; a story of a return from the dead which bears some resemblance to Le Colonel Chabert, though Depar-dieu plays the connection down), Andrzej Wajda's Danton (1982). With the huge success of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1985) and, especially, Jean-Paul Rappenau's Cyrano de Bergerac (1989; the actor calls this "a perfect film"), Depardieu's name had become synonymous with posh but popular French cinema. The call from Hollywood was inevitable.

Depardieu brooks no nonsense about maintaining the purity of his art - he talks as enthusiastically about his stage role in There's a Girl in My Soup as he does about his part in the first French production of Edward Bond's Saved. And though he expresses a degree of caution about what he calls "the American steamroller", he is anxious that this should not sound like European chauvinism: "I love American cinema, I love American audiences. It's exceptional - if they like a film, for them it's like a fte, they cheer and make noises. When they don't like it, you can feel it right away, and they don't even give you a bike to go home with." But a man who likes to repay his life-long debt to literature by lending his box-office clout to otherwise unbankable adaptations of the classics must have his doubts about what possibilities an American career might close off for him. "I like historical films a lot - I've done, what, 10 or so - and it's true that in America they don't like period films very much. There aren't many period films that make more than $30 million. I think the English like them because they've got more history. In America they're a little light on history . . ."

And this is one reason why Depar-dieu is so inspired by the example of his friend Kenneth Branagh, whose work he considers "extraordinary". Depardieu dubbed Branagh's voice for the French version of Henry V, which he considers "superior even to Olivier's film", and Branagh has asked him to consider playing the role of Othello. He refused, because "English has such richness, and I don't know it". (Actually, though he has stipulated that this interview be held in French, he clearly understands a lot more than he's willing to let on.) And yet, he says, "at the same time I know I can say lines even if I don't understand them, respecting the music of the language. I'm not sure that Pavarotti understands German . . . he follows the notes."

Branagh's example, Depardieu thinks, shows a possible route for the future: a way of making classics that will not leave their producers stranded and bikeless in America. "I don't want to go against the steamroller, I want to go with it, like Kenneth, who brings Shakespeare to the Americans and makes it alive . . . I'd like to do a film of Racine, to do Andromache . . ."

THIS PAPER's film writer David Thomson has suggested that Depar-dieu's autodidactic love of the classics, his evident inspiration by period and costume and the fact that his best work has often involved recreating literal and literary pasts, make him a figure comparable in some respects to Olivier. I try this out on the man himself: "That's a very flattering comparison, because Olivier did such wonderful things, with Hamlet, with Othello . . ." And Depardieu goes on in turn to compare Olivier to a man of the theatre who grew almost accidentally into a pillar of the French cinema: the writer and director Sacha Guitry, whose unfussy, rather static films, often made in just a few weeks, were unfashionable for many years after his death in the Fifties but are now being rediscovered in France.

Depardieu says he greatly admires the simplicity and professionalism of Guitry, and he sympathises strongly with something the director often used to say; it's something of a watchword, he thinks, for his own life in films. Grinning broadly, and mimicking Guitry's nasal twang, he carefully intones the director's rueful wisdom: "Cinema is a minor art, but . . ." - and Depardieu embellishes the concession with a mock-resigned, humorous shrug - ". . . one has to do it."

! `Le Colonel Chabert' (PG) opened on Fri, and is reviewed in the main paper.

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