Art imitates life as Tapie acts a new role

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It had to happen and now it has. Bernard Tapie, the disgraced politician and crooked football manager whose name is a byword in France for the discredited flamboyance of the Eighties, has starred in a film - and the awful truth is that he does it rather well.

Establishment knives were out for Tapie long before the first whispers of his mid-life career change began to circulate a year ago: corruption convictions, failed appeals and bankruptcy had seen to that. Today, though, after a premiere last night at a Champs-Elysees cinema, the film critics will take over from the political commentators and Tapie the actor could well become as much of a hero as Tapie the politician was in his heyday.

To underline the transition, he is expected today to resign his parliamentary seat in southern France "to concentrate on his new career". In fact, he has little choice: his bankruptcy means he is barred from public office. For Tapie, though, if one door closes, another tends to open. In Hommes, femmes, mode d'emploi (Men and women: a user's manual), he plays Benoit Blanc, a successful lawyer with a penchant for helicopters, a gambler's instinct and a messy love life. He is the counterpoint for Fabio Lini, a poor, aspiring actor whose pessimism knows no bounds.

They are brought together in a hospital waiting-room by a similar stomach complaint. The results of their tests are deliberately mixed up by a (female) doctor who wants revenge on Blanc for an earlier indiscretion, and their predicament is resolved, in every respect, by a fantastical trip in his helicopter to the shrine of St Bernadette at Lourdes. Blanc's catch-phrase, "If you expect the worst, you are never disappointed", provides a leitmotif.

The film is hardly the work of a novice, nor is it a mere vehicle for Tapie. It is the latest work of Claude Lelouche, whose early films included Un homme et une femme. The cast contains some of the French cinema's best-known names, including Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anouk Aimee. Tapie is almost the only newcomer.

But you would not know it. From his first appearance, he invites conviction in his new incarnation to an almost eerie degree.

Cynics say that Tapie was only ever an actor and is merely reverting to type. The truth is, that at a popular level, he has a considerable knack for timing.

His rapid political rise - to government minister - began under Francois Mitterrand. Despite his court convictions, including one for fixing a football match, he has retained considerable public sympathy.

His performance on screen could eventually relaunch his career in politics. It might even help his bank balance: he is said to have a 25 per cent stake in the film's profits.