Finally, Cantona turns in performance to please film critics

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The Independent Culture

France has discovered a new cinema star. His name is Eric Cantona.

Until now, Cantona, ex-footballer, philosopher, amateur kung fu performer and the former Dieu of Old Trafford, merely wanted to be an actor.

After previewing his new film - his seventh - which came out in France yesterday, the French press is close to being unanimous. Cantona, 37, can act.

In L'Outremangeur (The Excessive Eater), the former Manchester United and Leeds United striker plays a 25-stone Marseilles detective who falls in love with a young murderess. Cantona wears a "fat suit" to make him look grotesquely overweight.

On the screen he bears no resemblance below the neck to the lithe six-feet sportsman who once terrorised defenders (and the occasional supporter).

While commentary on the film, directed by Thierry Binisti, has been mixed, reaction to Cantona's performance has been adulatory. "He gets inside the skin of a deeply lonely man and manages to make him touching, even profoundly moving," wrote Dominique Borde in Le Figaro.

Until recently, the French cultural and intellectual classes have refused to take Cantona seriously. This is partly because he was once a footballer and partly because he talks with a strong Marseilles accent.

In his new film - only his second starring role - Cantona's accent is no obstacle. L'Outremangeur, which will be shown in Britain in the autumn, is a modern remake set in Marseilles of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

Cantona, who retired from football six years ago, plays Commissaire Séléna, a detective who hides from childhood trauma by eating compulsively. He proves that a young woman - played by Rachida Brakni, a rising star of French cinema - has murdered her uncle, who had abused her since childhood.

He offers Elsa a deal. He will cover up her guilt if she agrees to dine with him every night for a year.

Just as in the fairytale, Elsa gradually sees through the monstrous exterior to the charming man within. As Elsa appreciates him for his true self, Séléna-Cantona comes to terms with his past and becomes less monstrous.

In interviews with the French press, Cantona said that he was attracted by the enigmatic and psychotic character of Séléna. "It gave me a chance to explore the shadows in my own character, to ask existential questions, to understand my fear of emptiness," he said.

The former footballer's father was a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Cantona revealed in an interview with Le Parisien yesterday that he himself has courses of psychiatric analysis.

His recent short film, Apporte Moi Ton Amour (Bring Me Your Love), which hedirects and acts in, is about mental illness. It won a prize at a French festival of short films last month.

Cantona's acting career has been undistinguished until now. In his only other starring role - in Mookie, made in 1998 - he acts as a boxer who befriends a talking chimpanzee. Critics said they thought the chimp was the better actor.

Whether the acclaim for Cantona will give new impetus to a film career that had seemed to be fading remains to be seen.

There have been rumours recently that Cantona would like a job in football management.

Talking to Le Figaro yesterday, he said acting and painting were essential to him. But the thrill of acting could not match the thrill of playing football.

He told Le Parisien: "Nothing can compare with scoring the winning goal in the last minute of a cup final" (whichhe did for Manchester United at Wembley in 1996).

Sports stars in the cinema

After 15 years in football Vinnie Jones embarked on the more lucrative career of film star in 1998, aged 33, when he appeared in 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'. This was followed by 'Mean Machine', 'Snatch', 'Swordfish' and 'Gone In Sixty Seconds'.

The ice-skater Tonya Harding has built a new career as an actress after her implication in the wounding of her rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. She hasappeared in the film 'Breakaway', and on television in the 'Larry King Show' and 'Roseanne'. She is currently writing a book.

Pele, who helped Brazil to three World Cups, appeared alongside Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the war film 'Escape To Victory'. He also had parts in two football movies, 'A Minor Miracle' (1983) and 'Hotshot' (1987).

Rebecca Armstrong