Is Gérard a man of too many parts?

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In France, you can run from Gérard Depardieu, screaming, but you cannot hide.

In France, you can run from Gérard Depardieu, screaming, but you cannot hide. The Greatest Living French Actor made nine films last year - in other words, more than one movie every six weeks. Even for the workaholic, money-loving Depardieu, this is a record. His previous best effort was seven movies in 2002.

This week, Depardieu will also have to find time in his crowded schedule to answer questions from French detectives on his friendship with a mysterious, young Algerian millionaire whose bogus financial empire collapsed two years ago.

Nine big-screen movies in a year (plus two television films) is not just a French record. It is almost certainly a record for any big-name actor since Gene Autry and Roy Rogers trotted out monthly Westerns in the Californian desert in the 1950s. If so, it is hardly a record of which Depardieu - the man with the seductive, gravelly voice, the floppy boyish hair, and the nose like an old potato - should be proud. By the Greatest Living French Actor's own admission, it is a decade since he made a film of any quality. Few of his movies achieve international renown, or even an international release, these days. Have you ever heard of Nathalie or RRRrrr! or San Antonio, all shown in France last year? Neither have many people in France, judging by the box-office returns.

Depardieu, 56 last month, never puts in a truly bad performance, but he shuns roles that might test his immense talent, as revealed in Les Valseuses (1973), Jean de Florette (1986) or Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), for which he received an Oscar nomination. In recent years, he has been mostly memorable - acting in his sleep - as the outsize twit Obélix in the Astérix movies, or the butch, fur-loving fashion designer, Jean-Pierre Le Pelt, in 102 Dalmatians.

The great man - "Gégé" to his friends - said recently that he no longer regards himself as an actor but as a free spirit, who does a little bit of acting on the side. He was joking, presumably. All the same, you have to admire the GLFA's stamina. Apart from the nine films, apart from the two television movies, Depardieu is currently appearing with Fanny Ardant on the Paris stage (for the first time in six years). On 27 December, his birthday, Depardieu opened his second Paris restaurant. "L'Ecaille de la Fontaine", again jointly owned with his romantic partner, the actress Carole Bouquet, stands opposite his first restaurant, "La Fontaine Gaillon", near the Opéra.

Placing the restaurants close together should save Depardieu a little time for his other activities: his interests in vineyards in the Loire, Bordeaux, Languedoc, Sicily and Algeria; his investments in oil-exploration; his international lecture tour, performing readings from Saint Augustine; his friendships with the great and the good and the doubtful and the bad, ranging from Pope John Paul II to Bernadette Chirac to Fidel Castro to the aforementioned runaway Algerian millionaire, Moumen Khalifa.

What makes Depardieu tick? Money mostly, according to his estranged actor son Guillaume, who published a blistering attack on his dad two years ago. Money does matter to Depardieu père, but Depardieu fils understates the complexity and perversity of the man. Depardieu is said to demand €1.8m - an enormous fee in France - to appear in a "commercial" movie, however bad. He has also been known to work for the minimum wage on other lightly funded films, if the script pleases him.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Depardieu's movie debut (he has made 129, and still counting). "I've become a caricature of myself," he said in a recent interview. "But I don't give a stuff about that..." In another interview, he said: "For me, the most important thing is not acting, it's life. I have abundantly pursued my trade but, finally, I don't give a bugger about my career. People can call me all the names they like. I'm not interested."

What a cheek. What a talent. What a pity.

Up to speed on road safety

With the airwaves and news columns full of death and destruction, let us dwell for a moment on 5,700 violent deaths that did NOT happen in France in the last 30 months.

Since French police began to crack down on road safety, at President Jacques Chirac's insistence, in the summer of 2002, there has been a startling reduction in road deaths. In the year just ended, the country marginally exceeded its target of "only" 5,000 deaths, compared with a running annual total of around 7,800 up to 2001. British roads, with around 3,500 deaths a year for the same population of people and cars, are still somewhat safer, but the gap has closed dramatically.

The turnaround has been achieved by a daring innovation (for France): the proper enforcement of road-safety laws - from speeding to drink-driving - for the first time. Hundreds of radar speed traps have been deployed, producing the same kind of bleating from politicians and the media as is heard in the UK.

Every time I write on this subject - one of my hobbyhorses - I receive angry letters and e-mails from pro-speed readers. The French coffin-count speaks for itself.

String theory

According to sociologists, young French people are eschewing designer brands for something more "personal" and "authentic". Why then - according to research conducted by my 14-year-old son - is there a craze among Parisian girls for designer string? They pester assistants at Hermès, Dior, etc, for free lengths of branded tape, then tie it around their wrists as "personal" and "authentic" bracelets.