Face it, who else could measure up to de Gaulle?

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The Independent Online
He is on his way to becoming a one-man repertory company of almost every significant figure in French history and fiction. But over the next two years, Gerard Depardieu's chameleon-like qualities face a supreme test.

He will tackle two of the best-known and most physically distinctive Gallic figures. First, he will give human shape to Obelix, the blue-and- white striped sidekick of Asterix the Gaul. Second, he will play General Charles de Gaulle, in the first proper screen portrayal of the greatest Frenchman of modern times.

Depardieu has recently filmed the Man in the Iron Mask in the US; he is making a TV series in which he plays the Count of Monte Cristo; he returns to the stage in January in the first dramatic work by Jacques Attali, the former Mitterrand adviser who filled the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London with marble and costly luxuries. He is also considering sponsoring his own TV mini-series, in which he takes the role of the actual resistance leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix.

Yet, in an interview with Le Monde last week - the week he received a lifetime achievement award at the Venice film festival - Depardieu complained that things were "flat" and there were not many good parts around. He should perhaps try Hotspur in Henry IV: "Fie upon this quiet life, I want work."

Depardieu is the only active French actor who would be recognised on almost any street in the world, yet all his best work is implacably French ... Le Dernier Metro; Jean de Florette; Danton; Cyrano de Bergerac.

It is sometimes said that, despite a couple of second-rate movies like Green Card, he is still anxious to conquer Hollywood. But his friends deny this, saying it would force him to choose between doing action movies, with only a dozen lines of dialogue, which he would hate, or improving his English, which he can't be bothered to do.

The de Gaulle movie, announced last week, is a relatively long-term, purely French project, which should be guaranteed generous state funding. The plan is to start filming late next year or in 1999 to have the movie in cinemas in the year 2000, as part of France's cultural contribution to the celebration of the new millennium.

Brigitte Saintlion of the production company, Hachette Premiere, said the movie would concentrate on the pivotal year of de Gaulle's life, 1940. He began it as an obscure military theorist and acting Brigadier of a tank regiment and ended it as leader of the Free French forces in London (initially 800 men).

The production company has yet to decide whether to feature such figures as Winston Churchill or to film in Britain.

De Gaulle was 50 in that year: Depardieu will be 50 at the end of next year, when filming is due to begin. Otherwise, what similarities are there between the two men? Not many. Both are over six feet tall; both have heroically large noses.

"Physical resemblance is not everything," said Ms Saintlion. "Can you think of any other French actor capable of measuring up to such a role? No."

Depardieu told Le Monde that he had no hesitation in accepting the role of the General. "He is after all the greatest Frenchman of the century, whatever one might think of some of the things he did." But as the newspaper commented: "When one is, whether one likes it or not, the nation's favourite actor, one plays the nation's heroes."