Cinema: Un homme for all seasons

Likeable and versatile, with hidden depths - Daniel Auteuil is the perfect French actor. Robin Buss met him
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The Independent Culture
DANIEL AUTEUIL has been living in London since last August, studying English and preparing to make a film noir - "tres noir," he says - with the director Chris Menges. He plays a policeman on assignment in Britain, a character whom he describes as "a Frenchman in exile in London," clearly feeling that this more or less corresponds to his own situation.

In fact, as far as Auteuil is concerned, London represents the furthest he is prepared to go from his family, particularly his teenage daughter, who rings him up every day: "It's only three hours by train, so I can go home every weekend." He adds that, of course, he does like it here: he especially appreciates the fact that if he is recognised, people are reticent about approaching him. "Sometimes a young person comes up nervously ..." In his local video store, he noticed that after a while they had put out some of his films on display and the manager started addressing him as "Monsieur Auteuil". But nothing more: "there's no aggression about it."

He has been in films for over 20 years, but the breakthrough came when Claude Berri chose him to play Yves Montand's son, the young peasant in Jean de Florette (1985) and its sequel, also from a novel by Marcel Pagnol, Manon des Sources. Since then, Auteuil has been a star, though not a superstar. He is one of those versatile and reliable character actors whose hallmark is a discreet charm and a wide range. He was the naive businessman in Coline Serreau's comedy, Romuald et Juliette; part of a menage a trois in Claude Sautet's Un coeur en hiver; and Henry of Navarre in the historical drama La Reine Margot (shown on BBC2 on Christmas Day). Now he has come back to Berri to act in a film about the Second World War, Lucie Aubrac, opposite Carole Bouquet in the title role. They play resistance fighters in Lyon who take part in a dramatic prison escape after Auteuil's character has been captured by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death.

The story is true, taken from Lucie Aubrac's book Ils partiront dans l'ivresse (which was translated as Outwitting the Gestapo in 1993). For Berri, as Auteuil remarks, it forms the third of a loose trilogy of films dealing with the Occupation, starting with Le Vieil Homme et l'enfant (The Two of Us, 1966), which dramatised an incident from Berri's own wartime childhood; and then Uranus (1990), from a novel by Marcel Ayme, set during the post-Liberation purges; according to Auteuil, Berri needed above all to "have done with that period".

The first of Berri's war films, The Two of Us, enjoyed a moderate critical success over here. But Uranus seems to have bewildered the critics on its release, and rapidly disappeared from the cinemas. Broadly speaking, the French did not have a good war, a fact that they have had painfully to confront over the years (and continue to do so, most recently in the trial of Maurice Papon). All this seems to arouse either indifference or smug satisfaction in Britain: our parents and grandparents never had to make the same kind of choice. "France is ashamed of this period," Auteuil says. "And we can't escape the shame, so there is always controversy."

Berri, however, was not prepared for the fuss that broke out when the film was released. The Aubracs, who are still alive, had had a foretaste when Lucie's book was first published: she wrote it to answer accusations made by the defence at the trial of Klaus Barbie in the early 1980s. When the book was published, it produced further accusations against the Aubracs themselves about their role in the Resistance: it was even suggested that they might have been responsible for betraying Jean Moulin, General de Gaulle's envoy, who was captured by the Gestapo and shot in 1943. The events of Berri's film revolve around his arrest.

"At two or three points, Lucie's memory did let her down and she was forgiven none of these rare lapses," Auteuil says. "But she made nothing up: this is an autobiographical story." One underlying source of conflict was that the Aubracs were Communists, so they had enemies after the war among the Gaullists as well as the collaborators. De Gaulle was openly hostile to Raymond Aubrac.

Yet Berri's film makes no attempt to get involved in this sort of controversy. On the contrary, unlike Uranus, it seems like a return to an earlier genre of simple adventure films about the Resistance, with good Frenchmen fighting bad Germans. Moreover, as Auteuil is keen to stress, Berri conceived the film above all as a love story; it just happens to be played out against a background of war, resistance, capture, torture and escape. What interested Berri was how they felt after an operation was over.

"I'm not very happy talking about the Resistance, because I wasn't there at the time," Auteuil says. He read a lot about the period, including de Gaulle's grandiloquent memoirs, and met Raymond Aubrac before playing him, though he insists that he took little directly from the encounter, except admiration for the man's courage and his dedication to the cause. "Though I was playing a real person, as an actor I had to 'appropriate' the character, to reinvent it. Nor was I about to ask Raymond what it was like to be tortured, or if it hurt to get kicked in the face. He did tell me he was lucky in one respect: he used to faint under torture. And when we went to see the finished film, I was sitting next to him and I saw that when it came to the torture scenes, he turned away; so I guessed I must have got it about right."

Oddly, the respect that Auteuil has for Aubrac seems to have less to do with the other man's exploits in the Resistance than with the fact that (as he remarks more than once), Aubrac is "an intellectual". Almost the first thing he tells me - I had opened our conversation (in French) by asking whether I was right in thinking that he was in London to perfect his English - is telling. "Well, you can say perfect: you know, I left school very early," he replies, his head lowered and slightly on one side. More than once, he returns to the theme: "I left school very early, at 15"; "acting is the only thing I'm sure about in life." Anyone else might be inclined to boast of having achieved such success without the benefit of formal schooling; Auteuil seems compelled to confess to the deficiency.

He went on the stage at the age of four, the son of a couple who played in musical and light opera: they used young Daniel every time the script called for a child. His first serious role, in the late 1960s, was a bit part in Edward Bond's surreal Early Morning, in which he was hung up in a sack - "so I started out as an Englishman". That led to a series of parts on television and, in the early 1970, to films. He has also continued to play in the theatre, especially at the annual Avignon Festival.

He is now 47 and, improbably, getting more and more romantic leads. As he insists, Lucie Aubrac is a love story - and the sex is as explicit as the violence. Yet he was first inspired to devote himself to acting when he went to Avignon with his parents and saw the great comic actors Michel Simon and Fernandel, an unlikely couple of role models for a young boy; a later ambition was to play Richard III. It is almost as though he had lived his career back-to-front, starting as a character actor with a propensity for parts that required him to look gormless and inarticulate and graduating to play, if not Romeo, at least the subtly charming Romuald. His manner is self-effacing; he occasionally stumbles over a word ("autobiographie" for some reason brings him to a temporary halt). And at times, particularly when he is discussing a subject, such as acting, about which he feels strongly (or one, like politics, on which he feels unsure of his opinions), there are long hesitations and his voice trails away. He is intense, concentrated and the very opposite of glib.

He tells a typically self-deflating story, ostensibly to illustrate a point about the difference between acting on the stage and in films. "If you film something, the magic is lost. Once, I was acting in a play by Marivaux; I felt like an ethereal being. So I got a friend, with a video camera and said: 'Film me.' He did, and I was wearing these 18th-century trousers with this fat behind to them, and the only thing I could see was that fat behind. It's odd - I think the theatre is made like that

At one point, he talks about the "fragility" of actors. He has only once or twice been to the theatre in London (he is afraid to be "left outside" because of not understanding the language, though he senses a magic in live performance that goes beyond it); and once, after a play, he went across the road to the pub, where he could watch the actors as they came into the bar. It isn't hard to imagine him, tucked away in a corner, slyly observing his colleagues on their way out of work. "I enjoyed looking at them ... There are those who, as soon as the play ends, have finished: I was the first person to leave the auditorium, and three minutes later, these actors came in after me. They were there yet not there: the faces were blank ..."

He takes pleasure in his own fame, but without exaggeration - and with "a touch of paranoia". Making films is "a bit like a military campaign" and, though he didn't himself do national service, he can imagine that it was not unlike making an action film and being surrounded by "all those moustaches". He much prefers the company of women, "even though actresses can be a pain in the neck, because so much is expected of them". He ought to know, having played opposite some of the greatest in French cinema: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Emmanuelle Beart, Carole Bouquet.

However well or otherwise Lucie Aubrac does over here, it will surely confirm Auteuil as one of the few continental actors readily recognised by a British audience. He is someone it's hard not to like, giving an immediate impression of diffidence and vulnerability, with a suggestion of hidden depths. He acknowledges that English is the language of movies now, and realises that, because of the language barrier, he won't play Richard III; he is content to read the play, to perfect his English. And his model nowadays is Marcello Mastroianni, whom he knew and admired, because he was able to become an international star while never pretending to be anything but an Italian.

! 'Lucie Aubrac' (12) opens Fri.