Eric Cantona feted in Cannes for Loach film role

Brangelina aside, no one is getting bigger star treatment at the Cannes Film Festival than Eric Cantona.

Crossing the town's beachfront main drag, the Croisette, the French soccer great is mobbed by fans taking pictures and shouting "Le Roi" — the king. At the end of a press conference, journalists surge forward to get autographs from Cantona, who stars in Ken Loach's Cannes entry "Looking for Eric."

"People said to me, the Cannes experience is very special," said Cantona in the relative calm of a seafront hotel suite. "But I didn't know."

The level of adoration may surprise those unfamiliar with Cantona, a category that includes most Americans.

Loach's movie — an exceptionally funny and commercially appealing picture from a director better known for gritty social realism — should introduce many new moviegoers to Cantona, who is both athlete and icon, a football philosopher as famed for his cryptic pronouncements as for his stunning goals.

"Looking for Eric" plays on that reputation to comic effect. Cantona is the idol of central character Eric Bishop (British actor Steve Evets), a middle-aged Manchester mailman who pulls himself out of depression through imagined conversations with his hero. Cantona appears in Eric's bedroom for motivational chats, dispensing nuggets of wisdom such as, "He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six."

So is Cantona sending up his reputation as a soccer sage?

He said the character is "a part of myself which is very close to what I am."

"We live in a world of image," Cantona said. "I've tried to be just myself — which is an image also."

It's a satisfyingly cryptic answer from a man who became a fan favorite at Manchester United in the 1990s. He helped the team win four league titles in five years but also gained a reputation for volatility and was suspended for nine months after landing a flying kick on a fan who heckled him.

Cantona baffled reporters at the subsequent press conference by pronouncing: "When the seagulls follow a trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea" — then leaving.

Journalists pored endlessly over the meaning of Cantona's words. Cantona says now they were "nonsense."

"They all tried to analyze, to find the sense of these words," he said. "But I think the sense was in the situation."

Jazz-lover Cantona spent his suspension learning to play the trumpet — he performs a slightly shaky version of "La Marseillaise" in the movie.

He retired from soccer in 1997 — he says he'd lost his passion for the game — and has concentrated on acting and film production. He initially approached Loach — director of "Kes," "It's a Free World" and 2006 Cannes top prize winner "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" — with an idea for a screenplay. That film never got made, but Cantona found Loach to be a kindred spirit — and a huge soccer fan.

"I really love his cinema," said Cantona, 42. "Sometimes it's so real, you think it's a documentary ... There's a lot of humanity and solidarity."

The two men share a desire to celebrate communal bonds. Loach is a lifelong socialist who said that his film, with its affectionate portrait of a group of Manchester United fans, sets out to show that we are at our best when we work together.

Cantona, despite his maverick reputation, also values group effort. In the film his character is asked to recall the highlight of his career — and the surprising answer is not a goal, but a pass to another player. Screenwriter Paul Laverty said that was Cantona's real response to the question.

He'd be happy if "Looking for Eric" won prizes when Cannes hands out its awards on Sunday. But the thing he most enjoyed about the experience was the teamwork.

"When we were all together on the red carpet, you could feel the energy between us," Cantona said. "All the team were there, and it was so strong, like when you are in a tournament, before you go on the pitch before a great game. I could feel this energy."

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