Cantona scores at Cannes

Former Manchester United soccer star Eric Cantona shares a spliff and some self-help advice with a middle-aged postman down on his luck in Ken Loach's new comedy "Looking for Eric."

The film, showing in the Cannes film festival, marks a light-hearted departure for Loach, a director better known for socially engaged dramas such as "It's a Free World" or "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," which won the top Cannes prize in 2006.

"We'd done a couple of films that were really quite tough, so we thought it might be nice to do a film with a smile on our faces," he told a news conference after the film's screening.

Cantona, a mercurial, brooding and inspired player during his years of glory in Manchester in the 1990s, reveals an unexpected comic touch as he takes occasional puffs on a joint and dispenses life advice to his namesake and fan Eric Bishop.

Loach said Cantona, who co-produced the picture and has made a number of films since ending his playing career more than a decade ago, "acts like he plays football, with flair and creativity."

The film plays with his image as an unpredictable genius given to gnomic pronouncements as he materialises in "Little Eric's" terraced house and sets about restoring the self-confidence of a man crippled by regrets about the past.

"I am not a man, I am Cantona," he declares superbly at one point before taking out a trumpet and delivering an uncertain performance of "The Marseillaise."

"I liked that a lot," Cantona said. "I like to play with all that, I like to laugh at myself. It's a weapon."

The film, which is in the main Cannes competition, was warmly applauded and after years of critical success, "Looking for Eric" may bring Loach the kind of popular hit that has so far eluded him.

"In the end, you just have to tell the story as truthfully as you can and hope that it connects to people. So far, this film does seem to connect to people," he said.

"Certainly the distributors have shown a lot of confidence in it and we are getting many, many more prints in Britain than we've had before."

But despite the light tone, Loach has not renounced the socially engaged beliefs that have driven his work since the 1960s and an anecdote on teamwork and cooperation recounted by Cantona is one of the keys to the film.

Loach's longtime scriptwriter Paul Laverty said he had spent two days with Cantona to get to know the player before writing his part and had asked him what his favourite memory of his playing career had been.

"I was convinced it was going to be some cracking goal but then Eric said, no it was a pass and that was a real, real gift and it became part of the package of the whole story," he said.

The filmmakers could not find footage of the pass to teammate Ryan Giggs, but another, delivered by Cantona to set up a goal by Denis Irwin, is among several clips from the player's career shown in the film.

"The best things we do, we do as a team," said Loach, a longtime football fan.

But he was wary about combining sport and film too closely.

"In the game, you go from despair to hope to triumph to sadness to elation within an hour and three quarters. If a film could achieve that it would be some film, I tell you."