Gerard Depardieu: Lord of Misrule who divides France
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From which ever angle you view him literally, metaphorically, physically Gerard Depardieu is a colossus of Gallic life.
The term most frequently used to describe the bon vivant but volatile embodiment of French popular cinema is “une force de nature”. Even as the off-screen often drink-fuelled excesses of Geg, as he is fondly known, became ever more outrageous, his legion of French fans would shrug and say it was simply Depardieu being Gerard. As he stuck a chubby finger up to convention they laughed. The more undignified the performance (falling off his scooter while drunk, peeing in the aisle of an aircraft) they still laughed: this was Gerard, no mere mortal but a national institution.
“I’m happy with very little on this earth... but I do like to have a lot in my glass,” he said, and, mon dieu, did it show.
But then Gerard, who has rather a lot on this earth including a chateau, vineyards in France, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Algeria and Ukraine, three Parisian restaurants, a fish shop, a hotel and a motorbike concession, not to mention oil concessions in Cuba and investments in Romanian telecommunications, decided that he was not happy.
And even having quite a lot in his glass did not make the Socialist government’s proposed 75% temporary “supertax”’ band for earnings more than 1 million more palatable.
So the 63-year-old actor announced he was going north to Belgium, the celebrated land of moules, frites, chocolates and fiscal exile. As his jilted nation erupted, so did Depardieu, responding to official criticism that his behaviour was “shabby” and unpatriotic by threatening to hand back his French passport and health card and become Russian or even Chechen.unpopular, Depardieu may have been hung out to dry by disappointed fans. Instead the worm re-turned and the backlash against Depardieu for leaving the country transformed into criticism of the country and specifically the Socialists for forcing him out.
“Come back,” cried fellow actors warning he would be “as bored as a rat” in a sleepy Belgian border town.
“Mannekin Fisc” screamed the Libration headline.
Depardieu, who supported the previous centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, wrote an angry au revoir to Le Journal du Dimanche complaining about the government’s lack of respect and said he was off.
Interviewers have variously likened him to a charolais bull, a builders’ skip, a circus acrobat holding up the human pyramid, a “runaway truck” of a man, and caveman meets Cary Grant.
Pope John Paul II was once reported to have compared him to Saint Augustin, but the actor keeps some questionable company, notably Fidel Castro and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.
Gerard Xavier Marcel Depardieu was born on 27 December 1948, one of six children of an illiterate sheet-metal worker known as Dd, who was also a volunteer fireman and drunk, at Chteauroux in central France, 160 miles south of Paris. Legend has it his mother, Alice, known as Lilette, once informed her son that she had considered aborting him with a knitting needle. The story of his grim childhood la Zola or Dickens has become as much a thing of myth as the star it spawned.
The French press describe the family as “proletarian”, giving it a tinge of glamour it clearly never had. From the age of eight, young Gerard, nicknamed Petarou or little firecracker, was spending whole nights on the streets, attending school only when he had to, which was not often. When he did, he occasionally stumbled upon his father sleeping off a drinking session in the gutter.
“They were simple people, they didn’t speak,” the actor once said of his parents. “It wasn’t as if they hid things, there was no bourgeois pretence. It’s just they didn’t know how to speak. They shrieked, they yelled. When I think of home, I hear shouts everywhere. But for important things, ideas, feelings, the law of silence reigned.”
Depardieu junior abandoned school at 13 to become a delinquent, brawling, and trading black market cigarettes and alcohol with American soldiers stationed at a nearby base. As a sideline, he acted as bodyguard to the Parisian prostitutes who descended each week to entertain the troops, eventually leaving home to live with two of them.
“In the end, the most efficient thing about my education was that I never had one. That’s my strength,” he once told Le Monde.
After a spell as a printers’ apprentice, Depardieu’s salvation came when he moved to Paris and, despite a stammer, trained as an actor.
A role in Les Valseuses directed by Bertrand Blier, shot him to overnight stardom in 1974. Since then, he has made more than 180 cinema and television films and even made it big in America with Green Card in which he starred opposite Andie MacDowell.
He won an Oscar nomination and a Csar for Cyrano de Bergeracand is best-known in Britain for his role as the benighted and hunchback tax-collector turned farmer in Jean de Florette.
In Les Valseuses (in English, it was titled Going Places), Blier cast him as a feckless thug specialising in car theft and GBH, a role some saw as almost autobiographical. The same can be said of many of his subsequent roles. He can certainly do humble, gentle giant, amoral, uncouth, even thuggish, but critics have always credited him with an underlying sensitivity and intelligence.
“Twenty years ago, he was extremely dangerous,” Blier told the Guardian in 2000. “We literally had to follow him at night to stop him getting into punch-ups. He would deliberately go into the most dangerous areas, looking for trouble. Even now when he arrives at the door, I think, ‘Christ, where are the valuables?’”
Depardieu, who now describes himself as an actor-winemaker, plays Obelix in the new Asterix film God Save Britannia and says he will portray Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a new film because he “doesn’t like him” and DSK is “arrogant”.
Pictures of the young Depardieu in a good light suggest a rugged, brooding, if not classically good-looking man with a squared chin and mop of blonde hair. Age and his many admitted excesses have not been kind.
He has been involved in, and survived, more than a dozen motorbike accidents and in 1996 escaped unscathed when a small plane he was in collided with a Boeing 727 on the ground at Madrid airport.
In 2000, he had emergency multiple open-heart surgery he turned up at the hospital on his motorbike. Afterwards, doctors warned him to cut out his four to five bottles of red wine and three packets of Gitanes a day. He stopped smoking.
In recent years, he has tried to shed some of the 150 kilos he carries, with drastic, but failed diets, including fasting for 10 days at a time before resuming normal consumption.
“When I’m stressed, I still drink five or six bottles of wine a day. When I’m relaxed, three or four, but I’m trying to cut down,” he said in 2005.
Not surprisingly, his private life has been erratic. In 1970, he married his Jean de Florette co-star Elisabeth Guignot. The marriage lasted 22 years before they separated, during which the couple had two children, Guillaume, who, like his father, had a troubled youth including spells in prison for heroin dealing and who died aged 37 in 2008, and daughter, Julie, also an actress. He has a daughter with model and actress Karine Silla, and lived with former Chanel model and actress Carole Bouquet until 2005.
Shortly afterwards, he was reported to have had a son, Jean, with a French-Cambodian woman. Since then, his name has been linked to the former Harvard literary student and writer Clmentine Igou, who is 32 years his junior.
Depardieu is a man of contradictions. He is capable of great charm but equally capable of urinating in the aisle of a plane (as he did on a flight to Ireland).
He could afford a chauffeur or taxi, but prefers to don a helmet and set off on his scooter around Paris even after a few drinks, as he did last month.
He could also afford to stay in France and pay his taxes, but he prefers not to. Last week, as the row over his tax exile raged, employees at his Paris restaurants went on record to commend their boss as a kind, caring and generous man who should be allowed to do what he wants with his money.
Some days, he is Gerard the jolly Gallic giant, others Depardieu the drunk driver. One moment, he is a rumbustious screen presence, the next an oaf who risks much more than falling off his bike into caricature.
But as the French would say: “Ca, c’est Gerard.”