Wednesday 13 December 2017

Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Depardieu

The French actor has hit the headlines again – but for a stunning performance rather than off-screen antics

Wild man: Depardieu is known for his love of wine
Wild man: Depardieu is known for his love of wine
Gerard Depardieu at a film festival.
Gerard Depardieu in 'Welcome to New York'
'Jean De Florette'
'Le Colonel Chabert'
Gerard Depardieu in 'Welcome to New York'

Ed Whitington

He may be one of the most revered film actors of his generation, but over the last year or two Gerard Depardieu's off-screen antics have attracted a lot more attention than his work.

In the past 18 months, he has renounced his French passport, moved to Belgium, become a Russian citizen and has been arrested for driving a motorbike while under the influence of alcohol. So it's nice to be able to report that last week it was his extraordinary performance in an outrageous new movie that caught the headlines.

Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York was considered too disreputable to be screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and instead was premiered in a tent on the beach and will only get a straight-to-video release in France.

It tells the story of Devereux (played by Depardieu), a high-flying French economist who's among the most powerful and influential people in the world.

He's also a bit of a goat who uses prostitutes continually and presses his usually unwanted sexual attentions on practically every woman he meets.

In fact, he doesn't really seem to grasp the basic concept of consent, and so he faces ruin when he is accused of assaulting a housemaid at his New York hotel.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Abel Ferrara has openly admitted that his film is inspired by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF who was forced to with- draw from public life and a possible French presidential run after being accused of sexually assaulting a Manhattan hotel housekeeper in May 2011.

Welcome to New York comes with a disclaimer, but that hasn't stopped Strauss-Kahn from threatening to sue.

Mr Ferrara is known for his wild and uneven directing style, and by all accounts, Welcome to New York is a fascinating mess.

But most critics seem to agree that it boasts the best performance that Gerard Depardieu has given in years. He apparently dominates the screen with a portrayal by turns menacing and pathetic, and gives his all in frank and extended sex scenes some actors his age might have thought twice about even doing.

It's a reminder of just how good the 65-year-old can be when he puts his mind to it.

To be honest, however, we do need regular reminders because over a 40-year career he's made almost 200 films, and by no means all of them have been worthy of his talent.

In France, he's as well known for mind-numbingly stupid comedies as he is for classical dramas, and the quality of his films has varied so wildly that it's sometimes hard to assess his legacy.

Depardieu has claimed he doesn't give a damn about any of that; that he's never had a career plan and has always insisted on doing things his own way.

But it's worth remembering that at one point he was considered the French equivalent to De Niro, and seemed poised to become a major star in Hollywood.

To describe his origins as humble would be something of an understatement. Gerard Xavier Marcel Depardieu was born in the country town of Chateauroux, in central France, in the winter of 1948.

His mother, Anne, later told her son she almost aborted him because she couldn't afford him.

His father, Dedé Depardieu, meanwhile, was an illiterate, alcoholic sheet metal worker, and the Depardieus were so poor they could rarely afford even the cheapest meat – Depardieu would later recall learning how to cook hedgehog.

At the age of 12, or so the story goes, he ran away from home with two prostitutes and later got involved in petty crime.

He was 16, wild and unfocused when he first arrived in Paris looking for work.

Instead, he found acting.

The young Depardieu had a bad stammer, and wasn't optimistic when he decided to audition for the Theatre Nationale Populaire.

He got in and quickly revealed a raw, edgy talent and incredible charisma.

In 1974, he got his big break in Bertrand Blier's controversial comic drama, Les Valeuses.

Depardieu was electrifying as a misogynistic street thug, but Blier later remembered him being a handful to work with.

"Back then he was extremely dangerous," the director said.

"We literally had to follow him at night to stop him getting into punch-ups.

"Even now, when he arrives at the door I think, 'Christ, where are the valuables?'"

It was precisely this dangerous and unpredictable quality that made the young Depardieu such an interesting actor in the first place.

Lithe and rangy, craggy-faced, rumple-voiced and strikingly handsome despite that famously heroic nose, he quickly established himself as France's most exciting young star.

In 1976, he reached an international audience for the first time, star- ring opposite Robert De Niro in Bernardo Bertolucci's historical drama 1900.

And in the early 1980s he was outstanding in two French period dramas, Danton and Le Retour de Martin Guerre.

He worked with Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Luis Bunuel and Andrzej Wajda, and proved his impressive range by moving easily between comedy, thrillers and heavyweight dramas.

He was brilliant as a tragic dreamer in Claude Berri's 1986 hit Jean De Florette, and he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac (also 1990).

He didn't win, however, and his chances may have been scuppered by a piece that appeared on him in Time magazine that suggested he might have "participated" in a rape at the age of nine. But it was a mistranslation of an old interview – at worst, he'd witnessed an assault, but the damage was done.

He did score one major English- language hit playing a rather stereotypical wine-swilling Frenchman in Peter Weir's Green Card (1990), but he always seemed like a fish out of water in Hollywood, and has rarely worked there since.

Depardieu's worked a lot at home though, pumping out, on average, four films a year.

His heroic output has included a couple of gems in recent years, from the charming drama My Afternoons with Margueritte to the grungy road movie Mammuth.

But there's been a lot of dross too, including four Asterix films and a phenomenally dire 2004 comedy called RRRrrrr! about two tribes of cavemen fighting over shampoo.

So why does he appear in such nonsense?

Apparently, Gerard likes to work, and a constant income helps him with his other business interests, which include Cuban oil wells, telecoms and textile companies in Romania, and a vineyard in the Loire.

He's passionate about wine in every sense, and once said that it wasn't really alcohol at all.

"When I'm stressed," he told an interviewer in 2005, "I still drink five or six bottles of wine a day. When I'm relaxed, three or four – I'm trying to cut down."

He has, apparently, cut down a bit since that interview.

"Une force de la nature" is how the French media likes to describe him, and that phrase just about sums him up.

But last year, Depardieu upset many of his fellow countrymen by moving to Belgium in protest over a new tax law proposed by the then new socialist government.

Unwilling to face a 75pc charge on incomes over €1m, Depardieu was subsequently awarded honourary citizenship of both Belgium and Russia.

But if anyone's a Frenchman, Depardieu is: he says he "still loves" his country, and no doubt will be forgiven.

Depardieu's finest moments

French fancy: Depardieu's best moments

Danton (1983)

In Andrzej Wajda's powerful historical drama, Depardieu was perfectly cast as the imposing orator and statesman Georges Danton, who tries and fails to stem the Jacobin bloodlust during the Reign of Terror.

Jean de Florette (1986)

The actor revealed his gentler side in Claude Berri's hugely successful adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's novel, playing a hunchbacked dreamer whose plans for a carnation farm are scuppered by a scheming peasant.

Le Colonel Chabert (1994)

Depardieu is at his towering best in Yves Angelo's excellent historical drama, playing a shabby pauper who arrives at the offices of a prominent Parisian lawyer claiming to be a long lost hero of the Napoleonic Wars.


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