The iceman speaketh

The French actor who plays cold-hearted manipulators and misfits talks about his secrets, his lies and his penchant for incredibly beautiful actresses. Is Daniel Auteuil the new Gerard Depardieu?

The Lost Son is Daniel Auteuil's first English-speaking role in a film. Along the way he's gained a new language and lost a lot of sleep. The stress of preparation gave France's premier actor (sorry, Monsieur Depardieu) months of nightmares. "People said to me, `When you start dreaming in English you've got it'," he remembers with a smile. "I never did that. Nothing but these terrible nightmares with everybody saying, `I'm sorry, this is impossible, you have to go back to Paris now'."

Auteuil doesn't make it easy for himself. Whereas Depardieu dipped his toes into the English language with a lightweight comedy (Green Card), Auteuil chose a dark tale about child pornography. It wasn't a calculated move, he insists. "I didn't choose to work in English, I just chose to work with Chris Menges, that's all."

Watch the film and you understand why. This is classic Auteuil territory. Think of his past incarnations - each and every character a dislocated individual, stuck within a society they don't understand, or that has no desire to understand them. Remember lumpen, lovelorn Ugolin in Claude Berri's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, driven to suicide for his unrequited passions. Or Stephane, the near silent violin-maker (Un Coeur en Hiver) who manipulates the emotions of a violinist for unfathomable reasons.

And under Chris (A World Apart) Menges' direction we now meet Auteuil as private detective Xavier Lombard. It is a film that works on two levels. As a thriller with noirish overtones it comes packaged with an A-list cast - Nastassja Kinski, Katrin Cartlidge, Billie Whitelaw - and confidently details Lombard's search for the missing son of a wealthy family. Dig deeper, however, and you're suddenly face to face with another story; that of Lombard as a solitary, grieving individual, battling private demons while plunging into the bleak world of child trafficking.

As Auteuil explains: "I am attracted by trouble inside [people's minds]. This character is... an iceberg. I love those films where you're allowed to see into the secret parts we all have."

Auteuil has that rare skill indicative of a truly great actor. By seemingly doing very little, he can say it all. Great explosions of emotion can detonate around him, (think of Emmanuelle Beart in Un Coeur en Hiver, her heart finally broken) and yet the impassivity of his features allows a glimpse into that character's soul. Because of this his is the face you recognise but can't necessarily put a name to. It is the characters that remain lodged in your memory.

Acting, as he says, is in his genes. Auteuil's parents were travelling opera singers and, by the age of four, he was already honing stage skills. "I was playing the son of Madame Butterfly, and this singer would spit on me, every night, on stage. I learned my first lesson about performing. When someone is spitting all over you, that's the reality, but you have to pretend it's not happening. So that when it's real it's fake and vice versa. I still don't know whether to act is to tell the truth or lie."

When he left school at 15, however, such philosophical dilemmas were the last thing on his mind. The young Auteuil desperately wanted recognition, and even released a record in a bid for stardom. He would take any role going: "I just wanted to act, I didn't really care what I was doing, my attitude was I'd rather play a principal role in a mediocre film than a tiny role in a good film." He's done it all, from musicals to avant- garde theatre to naked dancing.

Yet ironically, when the big break finally arrived with Jean de Florette, Auteuil crumpled. To the outside world he was the man who suddenly had it all - the film won him a clutch of awards, made him an instant celebrity and kick-started his relationship with one of the world's most beautiful women, Emmanuelle Beart (the French media were in shock when they separated in 1995). The sad reality was a major nervous breakdown that took over six months to recover from.

But dusting himself down and picking himself up after those dark days, Auteuil went on to produce a body of work which confirmed him as one of European cinema's most versatile and talented actors. He can't name a favourite film: "Jean de Florette, La Separation, The Eighth Day, the films of Techine and Claude Sautet. I learned everything from Claude Sautet. He taught me how to trust. Do you remember the day when you realised it was easier to tell the truth than to lie - because it's more practical? - it was the same thing with me meeting Claude."

And now, a year away from 50, Auteuil is still sparkling with energy, racing through projects. He is filming the life of the Marquis de Sade in August under the direction of Benoit Jacquot. "De Sade gets a lot of bad press," he says. "People were quite evil towards him, even his publisher was guillotined. He passed almost his whole life in prison just because he was an author with no self-censure." In this film we meet an ageing de Sade, desperately clinging to the image that other people have of him. "It will be very difficult," says Auteuil happily.

And with Marianne Denicourt, his partner of three years (another absurdly beautiful woman) and co-star in The Lost Son, Auteuil is returning to the Paris stage in October, to perform David Hare's The Blue Room. When I question him about his penchant for actresses he shrugs his shoulders. "If I was a postman, my wife would be a postwoman. You find love through your job."

Buried under an outsized leather jacket and snappy Nike trainers, Auteuil is easy to talk to, funny, gentle, charming. He admits to being incapable of saying no to his 18-year-old daughter, of looking forward to two months of doing nothing - "I will get up and I will look at the sea" - and to the rather perverse ambition of living forever. There's a fascinating man underneath all that cigarette smoke.

"If I have a secret," he suddenly admits at one point in our conversation, "it is that life scares me." Explaining why, however, ties him up in knots. He finally plumps for the easy way out, discussing his relationship to work. "My choice of films always reflects the secret parts in me I was talking about earlier. I've learned a lot from my roles, since my real life and my roles are intimately mixed up together."

Later, thinking about our conversation, this reminds me of something he said when we last met, three years ago: "I've never found it that easy to talk to people, which bothers me. Acting gives me a context to my own life."

Now, however, in 1999, Auteuil is bolder. He challenges his own statement. "I do absolutely distinguish between what I play and what I live. I never take myself for the person I'm playing." He thinks for a moment. "Truffaut said that films are better than life. I personally don't think so. I have never felt anything as strongly in cinema as I have in real life."

`The Lost Son' opens on Friday. `Jean de Florette' and `Manon des Sources' have been recently re-released in new prints

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