He once downed 14 bottles of wine and counted Putin as a pal. With his new film out, what are we – and the French – to make of him?
Depardieu is starring in a new film, Robust, that harnesses his larger than life screen presence. Photograph: Xposurephotos/JLPPA
“France without meat isn’t France.” Gérard Depardieu growls the words, his irritation spreading across the screen like a gravy stain. He’s in character, playing Georges, a celebrated but erratic French actor, in his latest film, Robuste (Robust), the first feature by director Constance Meyer. But these are the kind of words – provocative, emphatic – which could equally have been spoken by Depardieu himself.
Larger than life, both onscreen – with the ugly-beautiful brutalist angles of his face, the forceful magnetism of his presence, the sheer heft of the man as he fills the frame – and off, with his notorious excesses and a life story that feels as though it could be the stuff of literature, the 73-year-old Depardieu has achieved an almost mythic quality. At his best, he’s a thrilling, disruptive and almost dangerous performer, but the Depardieu legend can weigh heavily on a film and tip a whole production off balance if it is not properly harnessed.
What Meyer achieves with Robust, in one of the most satisfying of Depardieu’s recent performances, is a playful symbiosis between the character of Georges and that of the actor playing him. She takes elements of Depardieu’s life – the motorcycle crashes, the testy relationship with celebrity, that famous appetite – and weaves it into the film.
Meyer had first met the actor 15 years before: “I was working as an assistant to a theatre director in Paris. Gérard was acting in the play. For the first time in his career, he asked to use an earpiece, and I ended up whispering his lines every evening for a few months. I think he trusted me as a person because we had had that ‘earpiece experience’. If he trusts a person, he can be very generous with his talent – he gives a lot on set.”
Having worked with him on three short films, she wrote the role of Georges for him.
In the film, released in the UK this week, Georges forms a friendship with his female security guard Aïssa, played by the remarkable Déborah Lukumuena. “He read the script very carefully and called me,” Meyer recalls. “He told me the film felt like the two characters were ‘two solitudes bathing in an aquarium full of amniotic liquid’. I love how weird, funny and so spot-on this comparison sounds.
“He immediately referred to Georges as ‘someone who looks a little like me’, which I think is such a simple and playful, humoristic way of thinking about it. Georges is a sort of double. I didn’t want him to feel the weight of autobiographical acting.”
But whether or not the character is fully autobiographical, it’s fair to say that the reputation of Depardieu looms large. While that is a selling point for French audiences, it might be less of a draw elsewhere.
The star of Cyrano de Bergerac, Jean de Florette (and the immensely popular Asterix and Obelix film franchise) has always had a complex relationship with his home country, but France has traditionally been forgiving of his misadventures, in part due to his disarming candour about them.
Other celebrities might conceal the fact that they can sink up to 14 bottles of wine in a single day. Or that they once drank an entire bottle of hair lotion after mistaking it for a bottle of Italian liqueur. Depardieu, however, is airily relaxed about oversharing the liver-shrivelling specifics of his drinking habits. When he generated outraged headlines in the British press after relieving himself in a water bottle on an Air France flight to Dublin in 2011, then inadvertently spilling it on the carpet, the French reaction was rather more tolerant. Writing in this paper, the commentator and critic Agnès Poirier observed: “When the news broke, we simply shrugged, smiling at Gérard’s latest coup. What else was there to say? Gérard is Gérard, and great men (or women) should be allowed their own little quirks from time to time.”
Since then, however, Depardieu has renewed his assault on everything from common decency to the country of his birth. In 2012, following a vocal spat with the French government (at one point he described France as a “filthy mess”) over a proposed higher tax rate, he moved to Belgium. In 2013, he was granted Russian citizenship, and declared kinship with Vladimir Putin, writing, “We could have both become hoodlums. I think he immediately liked my hooligan side.” He added: “Like with me, nobody would have betted a penny on him when he was 15.”
In 2015, he was banned from entering Ukraine for five years after apparently supporting the Russian annexation of Crimea.
More recently, an allegation of rape was lodged against Depardieu. The case was dropped for lack of evidence, but then reopened and remains pending. In another country, another industry, it is likely that Depardieu would find far fewer supporters. Meyer says of her decision to cast him: “I knew about the rape allegation, and as much as I support and encourage women and men to speak out, I also don’t want to live in a world where an accusation is like a sentence.
“Everyone deserves to be heard and deserves a fair trial. I am very attached to that. As an artist, I would really not feel OK to cancel an actor I have known and worked with for years, based on an accusation. I am not a judge.”
Poirier says that the attitude in France towards Depardieu remains largely unchanged in the decade since she wrote about the Air France incident. “There are some disgraceful episodes, like the tax evasion. Having said that, you mention Putin – very early on in the war in Ukraine, he said how despicable it was, he distanced himself. Also, when he says he is a friend of Putin, this is Depardieu talking. You shouldn’t take him literally, if you know what I mean. That Putin is a fan of Depardieu, of course. But Depardieu of Putin? I don’t think it makes much sense politically. He is prone to outbursts but he is no politician. He is a true artist.”
A French film executive who preferred not to be named is more circumspect, pointing out that “although he is making films, and films that are seen, I also feel he isn’t celebrated completely. He is very rarely invited to TV shows or to festivals. So he is a little bit of a persona non grata in that respect, but not fully cancelled, that is true.”
According to Meyer, Depardieu is a polarising figure even in France: “I think some people love him despite the controversies, and some people really are outraged by him. Depardieu has always had a controversial, polemical, or provocative public image. Maybe that’s a sort of armour, or a way for him not to be simplified or put in a box. He is one of the most contradictory, complex people I have met in my life. He is both rude and so refined, rough and full of grace, uneducated and very learned, gargantuan and ascetic.”
He is the best of us and he’s the worst of us. He is France incarnate
Depardieu is certainly a one off. Born into profound deprivation in 1948 – his parents were illiterate alcoholics – he left home and moved in with a pair of streetwalkers when he was just 13. He flirted with petty crime – according to his autobiography he was both a male prostitute and a grave robber – before stumbling into acting and discovering classic literature. His poetically ornate interview answers are, argues Poirier, a result of his autodidact tendency to devour “the great texts”.
But the French appreciation of Depardieu goes beyond a respect for his singular life story and remarkable talent. According to both Mayer and Poirier, the actor is firmly woven into the fabric of French cultural identity. As such, to condemn Depardieu amounts to a kind of self-harm. Meyer describes the relationship between French people and Depardieu “as a sort of mirror. He is like a symbol of France, even the way Depardieu disregards and criticises his own country is so French.”
Poirier concurs: “He is the best of us and he’s the worst of us. He is France incarnate. As Cyrano and in other roles, he is the French persona, in all its glory and awfulness.”