Daniel Auteuil: A star? Moi?

You name it, Daniel Auteuil has triumphed in it - from period melodrama ('Jean de Florette') to bloody philosophical thriller ('Hidden'). He also dates beautiful actresses and does a passable John Cleese impersonation... No wonder British audiences love this quintessentially French actor. Jonathan Romney meets him

The last we saw of French actor Daniel Auteuil, he was taking to his bed. His character in Michael Haneke's philosophical political nail-biter Hidden (Caché) is seen taking a sleeping pill, drawing the curtains and burrowing wearily under his sheets in a desperate attempt to numb his monumental guilt. Now Auteuil has a new film opening in Britain, the police corruption thriller 36, and again he's looking none too chipper: the opening scene finds him curled up in tears on a prison bunk.

It's far from Auteuil's only register, but it's one that he arguably does better than any screen actor alive: l'angoisse. The French word denotes a feeling a little less than anguish, a little more than anxiety. "Angst" is close to the mark, but l'angoisse is subtler: a deep-lying unease that defines a person's very being. If any actor embodies this delicate tension, it's Auteuil, a specialist in finely-limned crack-ups. Yet this is to underestimate the man's versatility: his CV includes historical drama, swashbucklers, literate bourgeois psychodramas, and comedy in every register from the exquisitely urbane to the downright knockabout. Until recently, he was best known in Britain for his parts in Un Coeur en hiver (as an emotionally stifled violin-maker) and in Claude Berri's Provençal diptych Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Now, however, Auteuil's urbane nerviness is inextricably identified with Georges, Parisian TV host and unwilling surveillance subject in Hidden, which earlier this year unexpectedly grossed over £1m at the British box-office. Hidden has made Auteuil the second best-known French male star among English-speaking viewers, the pole position still occupied by Gérard Depardieu, his co-star in 36.

So many of his characters exist in equilibrium on a psychic high wire that you expect Auteuil himself to crackle with stress. But, sitting in a London hotel, I find Auteuil relaxed, affable, even buffoonish. There's a knock at the door as tea arrives, and Auteuil - dapperly suited and comfortably stocky - calls out, "Yeees? Come iiiiin?" in high-pitched comedy English (just conceivably an imitation of John Cleese, with whom he recently worked).

In 1995, I asked Auteuil to what degree he invested himself in his roles: "To what degree?" he replied then. "39.5, 40 - fever heat." Now he says he takes things more gently: "I work a lot every year, so I've had to simplify my life enormously." On shooting Hidden with the famously rigorous Haneke, he says, "When I'm lucky enough to work with a really intelligent director, I find there's no point getting tangled up in stupid psychology. We didn't discuss too much: I'd just ask where to enter, where to exit, the odd adjustment. The more a director leaves you alone, the more you can make yourself available and the better it works."

Olivier Marchal, who directed him in 36, admits that there's a certain passivity about Auteuil on set. "He completely lets himself be manipulated - 'Put your hand there, open the door, light a cigarette...'" In fact, says Marchal, "He claims he's lazy, but he's very, very thorough. He's a very cerebral actor - he studies the script a lot, he can really discuss a character with you." He's big on background too: for his role of a hard-boiled Parisian cop, Auteuil joined Marchal (himself a former flic) and his friends in the service on policiers' nights out and also put in time at 36, Quai des Orfèvres, the Paris police HQ that gives the film its name.

A punchy mainstream production, 36 is most distinctive for the play-off between its two gnarly alpha-male leads. As bitterly rivalrous senior coppers, Auteuil and Depardieu exchange scowls as tersely and commandingly as Pacino and De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat - the film that Marchal acknowledges as his inspiration.

For non-French viewers, Auteuil appeared out of nowhere in 1986, making a spectacular splash as the hard-to-love rustic Ugolin in Jean de Florette. He instantly became the most recognisable man in French cinema, thanks to the assymetrical profile of a heron that's flown into a brick wall. A particularly decisive role, and something of a template for later parts, was the emotionally glaciated hero of Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en hiver (1992). "You create a role, then directors want you to play variations on it - and it's up to you to know how far to go without repeating yourself." Not that Auteuil minds those directors - "the lazy ones" - who are content with his variations. "If they're happy, then I am too. I feel safe being lazy." But he's not always as passive as he claims.

He turned down the offer to play Asterix in a live-action vehicle for the cartoon Gaul opposite Depardieu's Obelix: he didn't want a mainstream hit to tie him to a role. On the subject of Depardieu, whose busy but sometimes embarrassing filmography over the past 15 years suggests either laziness or self-loathing, Auteuil is gallant: "He doesn't need defending. For 20 years, he worked with the greatest directors, and after you've done that, sometimes you want to try something else."

Born in Algiers in 1950, and raised in Avignon, Auteuil had a classic born-in-a-trunk upbringing. His parents were both opera singers, and he made his stage debut aged four, as Madame Butterfly's son. He still retains an early memory of "being on stage and feeling it was the one place in the world where absolutely nothing could harm me".

Moving to Paris in 1970, Auteuil underwent a hotch-potch apprenticeship: working as a theatre electrician, collecting gags for comedians, dancing naked in Oh! Calcutta!. He spent much of his first screen decade playing thugs and good-natured comedy oafs, in films with titles including The Under-Gifted, The Under-Gifted On Holiday and Dumb But Disciplined. Even today, he'll take on amiably creaky amusements such as the office farce, The Closet (2001).

But Auteuil is more generally identified with darker currents. From Jean de Florette on, he has amassed a memorable collection of physical and emotional monsters, including a gently courteous Marquis de Sade (Sade, 2000); a twitchy, gimlet-eyed Henri de Navarre in Patrice Chéreau's heritage bloodbath La Reine Margot (1994); and a Byronic knife-thrower slinging stilettos at Vanessa Paradis in the silkily ludicrous The Girl on the Bridge (1999).

Such parts cemented Auteuil's status as a highbrow heartthrob; one French fan website carries breathless marriage proposals. For nearly a decade, he and Emmanuelle Béart - his co-star in Manon and Un Coeur en hiver, with whom he has a daughter, Nelly - were French cinema's golden couple. They split while making Une Femme française (1995), in which she played an unfaithful wife to his stuffy army officer: the film contributed to a perception of Auteuil as a nobly wounded loner. More recently, he was attached to another prominent name, Marianne Denicourt; they co-starred in a 1999 stage production of David Hare's The Blue Room. Anne Jousset, the mother of his first daughter, also acted.

"I've spent my life with actresses," Auteuil says. "When I was young, I was with a student actress. Maybe when I'm old, I'll be with a retired actress, who knows?" There's definitely something, he says, about hitting it off on set, although he adds, "You split up on set too. There's an excitement in it that's also rather infantile, a sort of play-acting. But if there's anything erotic going on, it's never in the love scenes." His penchant for actresses, he speculates, may stem from his primal experience: "In my case, it's all to do with my relationship with the woman who sang Madame Butterfly." In any case, Auteuil now seems to have broken the pattern. Of late, he's been involved with a young stone-carver he met at a Corsican gas station during a biking trip.

At 56, Auteuil can afford to be as lazy as he claims, with a filmography of some 70 features and several awards including a shared Best Actor in Cannes for The Eighth Day (1996). He makes his life sound relaxed to a fault. He lives in Paris, on the prestigious Ile St-Louis; he enjoys walking his dog there in the evenings, he tells me, then practically winces, adding dryly, "Fascinating stuff I'm telling you, isn't it?" Still, he continues to push himself. In 2004, he published his first collection of short stories, to critical approval. Hidden was generally agreed to be a career best. And although 36 is a more conventional film, it still shows Auteuil expanding his range, trying out a testy, big-hearted machismo that's rather a departure for him. But perhaps it really is some deep-rooted angoisse that motivates him. "As time goes by," Auteuil volunteers, "you become more and more complicated, because you lose your lightness - a bit like a ship that's sprung a leak. You can feel it sinking. So I'm bailing out water, trying to shed as much weight as much as possible." It sounds like pessimism, I suggest. "No, just clear-sightedness. But everything's fine, hein?" Auteuil smiles, a touch grimly.

"The ship's holding steady - it's just taking in water." m

'36' is on general release 'Hidden' is released on DVD on 19 June

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