BOOK REVIEW / Rare talent served in a generous portion: Depardieu - Paul Chutkow: HarperCollins, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
NO ACTOR bulks larger in the contemporary French cinema than Gerard Depardieu. And bulk is the word.

The man is a giant. Even in widescreen he easily fills the frame. His hands are the size of shovels. His belly is the size of a barrage balloon. During the shooting of Germinal a couple of years ago he weighed in at 260lb and looked like an explosion in a launderette. Yves St Laurent dressed Depardieu for Trop Belle Pour Toi, but like an unruly schoolkid at the end of the academic year, he was always spilling out of those exquisitely generous suits.

Depardieu loves food. Lunch is generally a rare steak big enough for two, salad, cheese, red wine, ice cream and home-made tart. On a rare day off he went shopping for dinner with Paul Chutkow. Depardieu prodded chickens and turned his nose up at Swiss Gruyere (too salty, apparently) - and the shopkeepers applauded.

'He has passion - he eats life,' Andie MacDowell says of the character he plays in Green Card. True enough, but life is passionate back: everybody seems to love Depardieu.

We have certainly had a lot of opportunities to indulge that love. Depardieu does not only dominate the cinema by dint of his size: he dominates by dint of his ubiquity. Over the past quarter of a century he has made more than 80 movies. While it might have been better had some of them never seen the light, his greatness, like Picasso's - to whom he is more than once compared in this uneven biography - seems to flourish only by over-production. As I write, five of his movies (in one of which Jean Luc Godard has cast him as God) are awaiting release in this country: no fear of us starving either.

What is it with this guy? Why is he so adored? I mean, it's not as if he's a looker: he's not the new Belmondo or Montand, nor even the new Maurice Chevalier; and, as the pictures in this book show, he's always had a vile haircut. Even his mother didn't want him - she tried to do away with him while he was still in the womb. With a knitting needle (maybe that explains the crevice in his nose).

Whatever the truth of these speculations, Gerard Xavier Depardieu was born two days after Christmas in 1948 in Chateauroux, 160 miles south of Paris. Here he dropped out of school, apprenticed as a typesetter, took the summers off to work the beaches on the riviera and, in short, tried hard to be a no-good bum. It wouldn't take. Talent won't always take no for an answer. And, although he still can't explain why, the semi-literate Depardieu was drawn to Paris and drama school. Here, after some semi-mystical speech therapy, he began to flourish.

He hasn't stopped. After a few years on television he hit the big screen in 1971 and the big time a couple of years later in Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses, a kind of Easy Rider without the motorbikes. Depardieu still got a lot of riding in, though: he was one half of a pair of reprehensible priapic delinquents - except that nobody could bring themselves to reprehend him.

He was armoured in charm. In Police he plays a corrupt cop, urgent, edgy, bear-like in his brutality. Searching a room for drugs he trashes the joint without once winking at us to join in the fun. Interviewing an old woman who's almost had her finger cut off by a mugger, he makes no pretence of wanting anything more than a charge for his arrest sheet. It takes an actor of extraordinary confidence not to soften things up for such scenes, but Depardieu's sarcastic bully is in this for real, and it is a testament to his bewitching presence that we can't dislike him.

Nor can the women. In Green Card Andie MacDowell says he looks like he's just stepped out of the jungle, but over the course of the movie finds she wants to go back in there with him. She learns an old but unfashionable lesson: that it's the people who eat life that are best qualified to serve it up.

Depardieu serves it up in all its ragged glory, and, by mocking the putative ideological certainties of our age, makes life what it so often isn't - fun.