Eric Cantona: The seagull has landed

Eric Cantona, the philosopher and footballer we hated to love, is back starring in a film about himself – but will his partnership with Ken Loach score at the box office?
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The French chattering classes face a dilemma this month. Can one be a fan of both Ken and Eric? French intellectuals have long made an honorary Parisian of the radical low-budget British film director Ken Loach. They have, for many years, mocked that honorary Mancunian, Eric Cantona, footballer turned artist and intellectual.

If you live in Paris, even if you are a self-proclaimed left-wing humanist, it is difficult to take someone seriously if they have a thick Marseilles accent and used to play professional football. Hence the dilemma of the Parisian chattering classes.

At the Cannes film festival this month, Loach's new film, Looking For Eric, will be in competition for the Palme d'Or. It stars Eric Cantona as Eric Cantona, working as guru and life coach to a floundering Mancunian postman, who is obsessed with the former Manchester United striker. The film is based on a story suggested to Loach by Cantona himself.

Can you approve of both Ken and Eric? The dilemma for Parisian film-buffs is not as acute as it might have been a decade ago. Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona, semi-retired footballer, now actor, poet, painter, photographer and soon-to-be pop-song lyricist, has finally made the transition from Rambo to Rimbaud.

After a poor beginning in which he acted beside a monkey, Cantona, 43 this month, is being taken seriously as an actor at last. His photographs of bullfights are attracting critical acclaim. He has written the lyrics for an album recorded by his second wife, the actress Rachida Brakni. He still manages, and plays for, the French beach football team and talks occasionally – seriously, it appears – of his ambition to return to Man United one day, as manager.

Twelve years after he retired from football, has Cantona become the new Renaissance Man?

Disturbingly for lovers of the old Cantona, the philosopher and rebel, there are signs that he is not only succeeding but mellowing. He is making a smooth transition to something that he previously exploited but resisted: stardom.

When Cantona and Brakni posed for the front page of Paris Match recently, there was something odd about the picture of him on the cover. He was smiling. The interview was full of gushing Paris Match emotion. Eric and Rachida told how they had fallen in love at first sight on the set of the film L'Outremangeur in 2002, even though, at the time, Cantona was dressed in a body suit that made him look like he weighed 25st. There was no mention of Cantona's first wife, Isabelle Ferrer, a teacher, nor of his two children. The divorce is reported to have been relatively amicable.

Cantona used to be utterly unwilling to talk to the press. Journalists were the target of his most famous saying at a press conference in 1995: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." You need me; I don't need you.

His tone in the Paris Match interview was quite different: co-operative, even tame. Cantona seemed to want to apologise. "I am still too wrapped up in myself. There are meals where I don't say a word and can't force myself to talk. Only through art can I express myself. Don't write that down please; it sounds pretentious."

Is this the Cantona who ran to the crowd and drop-kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had called him a "French bastard" in 1995? Is this the Cantona who walked up to every member of a French football disciplinary panel and called him an "idiot" in 1991?

Another interview this weekend, for the trendy Liberation Next magazine, was more like the old Cantona. He put the boot into the majority of French movie actors who are, he said, full of themselves and always complaining. "Apart from a few greats, for whom I have enormous respect, there is too much pretension and arrogance in French cinema. No respect. No balls. No guts." All the same, Cantona agreed to pose for the magazine in Charvet and Armani shirts and have his hair done by a celebrity stylist.

Acquaintances say that Cantona's relationship with Brakni, a classically-trained French actress, has calmed and changed him, not for the worse. They trace the upturn in his acting career to her influence. Cantona's film appearances got mocking or polite reviews until last year's starring role in a television thriller, Papillon Noir. He played a brooding, bearded drifter who takes an alcoholic writer hostage in an isolated house. Le Monde said Cantona was "hard and disturbing and impeccable from beginning to end".

Cantona is to appear on the Paris stage next January at the Marigny theatre in a play directed by his wife. She is to release a pop album this autumn with music by the French singer Cali and lyrics by her husband.

The former Auxerre, Marseilles, Montpellier, Leeds United and Manchester United striker has also been attracting attention as a photographer. Cantona has been a fan of bull-fighting since he played in Montpellier, a bullfighting town, in 1990. His own upturned collar and proud, upright stance as a footballer owed something perhaps to the haughty manner of French and Spanish matadors. In recent years, Cantona has started photographing bullfights in black and white. Exhibitions of his work have appeared – to great acclaim – during bullfighting festivals in the south of France.

"I don't use digital cameras because they are a creature of modern times: of repetition, of, consumption," he told the newspaper Liberation. "You can take 100 shots but keep only one. I prefer using film because it sharpens your powers of observation. If you miss something, your miss is for always. I like that."

In Looking For Eric, Cantona is not just actor but co-producer and part-financier. The film is based on an incident in his career: a fan so smitten by Cantona that he committed apostasy and transferred his allegiance from Leeds United to Manchester United.

Loach was approached by Cantona to make the film. "It is not about me and it's not about football," he said. "All the same, a director who knew nothing about football could not have made it. No French director could have made it either. I was afraid it would be coarsened, caricatured, made stupidly commercial."

When Cantona returned to Old Trafford to film with Loach last year, some Man United fans approached him in tears. How did he react, Paris Match asked? "I cried too," he said.

The buzz on the film in France is positive. Could he become the first footballer to win the FA Cup (twice), the English championship (five times) and the Cannes Palme d'Or?