Too French for France

Why France’s Greatest Movie Star Defected

Fat, drunken, sex-mad and toxically rude, only one country could have made Gérard Depardieu a movie star. So what did France do to make him tear up his passport and move to Russia?

On 14 May 2011, a 32-year-old maid, Nafissatou Diallo, emerged from a luxury suite at the Sofitel Hotel in New York alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by its occupant, a senior member of the International Monetary Fund. Gotham’s finest swooped in to arrest the suspect who turned out to be, almost inevitably, the IMF’s Managing Director who was, again almost inevitably, a Frenchman. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a senior politician who had got the job as a pay-off for not causing trouble in his political party back home, the Socialists; it was also public knowledge in France that DSK was a sex maniac or, in the words of his own lawyers, ‘a simple swinger’ who regularly attended orgies where it was 'normal' for him to have sex with six different women at a time.

In France this kind of thing is regarded as relatively normal (in 1959, for example, the President of the National Assembly, André Le Troquer, was found guilty of forcing fifteen-year-old girls to dance at nude ballets for his pleasure and had to pay a small fine) but because the international media had picked up the DSK scandal, for once the scandal reverberated across the country and Strauss-Kahn was forced, much against his will, to announce he would not be standing as the Socialist candidate in the 2012 French presidential elections.

DSK’s downfall was so complete that a movie about the scandal has been commissioned. But who could possibly play the man one of his victims described as “a rutting chimpanzee?”

 Step forward France’s greatest film star, Gérard Depardieu, into the role he was born to play.

Depardieu has always been larger than life or “fatter anyway” according to the British director Michael Winner who also said more charitably: ‘Gérard is everybody’s idea of a Frenchman’.

Depardieu is one of France’s most prolific character actors, having appeared in over one hundred-and-seventy movies since 1967. He has twice won the César Award for Best Actor, the home equivalent of an Academy Award. He is a Chevalier (knight) of the Légion d'honneur, a Chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite and a winner of many prizes at film festivals. He might even have won an Oscar in 1990 for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac if he had not announced to the world media during the publicity-sensitive period before the Awards that he had once taken part in a gang-rape. (He attempted to save the situation by explaining that he had been mistranslated and in fact “only watched”.)

In France, this kind of crudity would have been laughed off. Back home, Depardieu’s real life character has been conflated with his film persona, that of a jovial thug. This is a persona he plays well, with a rich and showy gusto, but it is the same persona he brings to every role. His breakout film role came in 1974 playing Jean-Claude, a jovial thug, in Bertrand Blier's comedy Going Places. In 1986, he won international fame as a doomed, hunchbacked jovial thug in the film Jean de Florette. He even played Christopher Columbus in 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) as a kind of exploring jovial thug. One of his latest films, Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia (2012), sees him as Obelix, a classical-era jovial thug.

By no means does he bring a scientific approach to a script. “I gave Sigourney Weaver... advice when she was [filming] in France,’” said Depardieu blithely. “If you try to understand what you're saying, you'll slow down and be terrible.”

The French do not seem to mind that the jovial thug onscreen is an accurate reflection of Depardieu off-screen. Depardieu was born the third of six children in Châteauroux, 160 miles south of Paris. His father, Dédé, was an illiterate, alcoholic sheet-metal worker; his mother once informed the press that she considered aborting young Gérard with a knitting needle. At the age of nine, he was running with street gangs and carrying a gun. He left home at twelve, so the story goes, to live with a pair of ageing prostitutes, Irène and Michèle. He fell into a life of petty crime, selling booze on the black market, brawling in bars and ended up in prison — before going on the stage on the advice of a prison psychologist. “If I hadn’t become an actor”, he says, “I would have been a killer.”

Depardieu has never actually killed anyone but he has been involved in numerous punch-ups with paparazzi, personal assistants, hotel staff and anyone who comes within range. In 2012, he punched a 63-year-old man in the face when his car got in the way of Depardieu’s scooter on a Paris high street. The meaty-fisted actor shrugged off the incident claiming his victim “was more stunned than hurt”. And who wouldn’t be stunned by the sight of Depardieu on a scooter hurtling at you like a hippo on a runaway barstool?

So far Depardieu has survived seventeen (at the last count) motorbike accidents and a runway accident when his small plane smacked into a Boeing 727 at Madrid airport. He refused to take an ambulance to hospital for a quintuple heart bypass operation but insisted on going by scooter and fell off halfway there. And his reaction to all the tickets, summonses and arrests? A Gallic shrug. He simply did not turn up to a trial for drunken driving in April 2013 and the judge almost apologetically postponed the proceedings until a time more convenient to the defendant.

It’s no secret that drink is Depardieu’s besetting problem. “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, adding, in a moment of clarity if not sobriety, “You think alcohol calms you down, but you can become addicted to it.” The French media pores delightedly over his sozzled buffoonery. Recently France’s most famous film star found himself on a CityJet plane on a scheduled flight to Dublin. While still on the runway in Paris, Depardieu found he needed to make a call of nature but was informed by a flight attendant that the toilets could not be used until the plane was airborne. Nothing daunted, he unzipped his capacious pantaloons and freely sprayed the carpet of the first-class cabin. The plane was delayed by two hours while a hazmat team dealt with the spill. Meanwhile Depardieu was splashed across French television as a folk hero. “It was so beautiful. I'm not a monster”, he reminisced in one interview, “I am an elephant . . . I have a lot of pee.”

Elephantine is a euphemism for Depardieu’s physical transformation over the years. Once one of the handsomest actors in French film, lean and rangy, he’s now boozed and gorged himself into the shape of an aubergine-coloured blimp with a bifurcated nose like a penis. His fondness for drink is matched by a compulsive appetite. While filming 102 Dalmatians in London, he insisted on eating at five different establishments on the same day, gorging himself so much that his chauffeur admitted “his speech was slurred and he could hardly stand”. At other times he ate so much that he simply fell asleep. No one knows for sure quite how much he weighs when he’s on one of his binges but one member of a team of bodyguards who had to lift him into a wheelchair to get him off a plane (Depardieu’s weight sometimes makes him so tired or so feeble that he likes to be ferried about by wheelchair) estimated that he weighed ‘around three-hundred and eighty pounds’ or about a fifth of a ton. This can cause problems for the costume department since Depardieu, who reports that his weight can fluctuate by as much as seventy pounds, might start a film relatively slim but, by the end, be so large that lines have to be inserted into the script to explain his expanding girth.

Acclaimed director Roland Joffe, who worked with Depardieu on the film Vatel, in which he played a chef, had to insist that the actor stop eating a theee-foot-wide Parmesan cheese which was part of the set: firstly, because it was causing serious continuity problems; secondly, because it was a gel prop.

For all this, he remains irresistible to women. Inevitably, his love life is as complex, bizarre and unbelievable as any film – but a film in which Jabba the Hutt, say, rather than Harrison Ford is the sex interest. It involves interlapping relationships with Bond girls, Pulitzer-winning authors, international super models, beautiful psychologists and Nastassja Kinski. French intellectual Marguerite Duras, who directed him in two films, calls him “a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man” while Catherine Deneuve thinks of him as “dramatically hulking”.

For nearly half a century, Depardieu was France’s golden boy. Then on 03 January 2013, he handed in his French passport and took Russian citizenship, a process fast-tracked by executive order of his personal friend, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

The world could not have been more stunned if John Wayne had announced he was joining the Vietcong. In France, Depardieu’s defection was met with outrage. The budget minister Jerome Cahuzac called the move ‘pathetic.’ President Hollande spoke with Depardieu over the phone at length, conversations in which he apparently criticised Depardieu’s ‘tax exile, politics and poetry.’ The labour minister, Michel Sapin, deemed it the sign of a ‘form of personal degeneration.’ Fellow actors savaged him in the press, one of them writing in the left-wing newspaper Liberation that Depardieu was “a fat piece of shit... escaping the country with a load of dosh”.

Depardieu’s move does seem to be all about money, and a lot of it. In 2012, France’s Socialist government imposed an eye-watering tax of 75% on any income over one million Euros. While Depardieu likes to present himself as a shambling peasant content with little more than a bottle of wine and a 3-foot wide cheese, he is actually an extremely astute businessman. He has investments in Cuban oil fields and Romanian telecommunication and textiles industries. He’s not just a consumer of wine, he’s also a major producer. He owns the 13th-century Château de Tigné estate in Anjou, in the lower Loire valley of western France, which now annually produces 12 cuvées – 350,000 bottles. Now he co-owns a series of estates in Argentina, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Bordeaux. He owns two restaurants in Paris and others are planned in London and Sochi, his new home, in Russia.

“France”, said Depardieu replying to the extremely public attacks on him by politicians, journalists and intellectuals, “is clapped out and the French are sad.” In an open letter, he reminded the French that he has been working since he was fourteen and in fifty years of acting he had paid €145 million ($190 million) in taxes. He then put his €50 million Parisian mansion on the market and quit the country. “I am neither worthy of pity nor admirable, but I shall not be called 'pathetic’”, he wrote in an open letter to the French prime minister. “I am leaving because you consider that success, creation, talent, anything different, must be punished.”

It may be that France’s (Former) Greatest Living Frenchman never returns to la patrie. He’s having far too much fun in Russia, being feted by Vladimir Putin, given free apartments by the President of Chechnya and mulling over offers to become the Minister of Culture of Mordavia, a tiny Russian republic (“I am the world’s Minister of Culture”, he said, turning down the offer). 

But Depardieu hasn’t quite forgotten France or its government. That’s why he so gleefully accepted the leading role in the new Dominique Strauss-Kahn movie. DSK was once an extremely high-ranking member of the Socialist Party, the party of President Hollande. “He’s not lovable”, says Depardieu describing the character. “I think he’s a bit like all French politicians, a bit arrogant. And he’s very French – arrogant, smug. He’s playable. I don’t much like the French in any case.”

It seems that Depardieu intends to make more than a meal of this role.

(Depardieu may already be having the last laugh. One of the first politicians to attack him for renouncing his French citizenship was Jerome Cahuzac, the budget minister and President Hollande’s tax tsar. In March 2013, he had to resign his position when it was revealed that he had been keeping €600,000 in a Swiss bank account to avoid tax.)


Half-Man, Half-Pig: The Role of A Lifetime

The Managing Director of the IMF, Mr Strauss Kahn - once tipped as a future president of France – was arrested in May 2011 for trying to a rape Guinea immigrant when she came to clean his suite in New York's Sofitel hotel. He was charged with attempted rape, sexual abuse, a criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching and held at the city's notorious Ryker's Island prison. He claimed Ms Diallo had consented to sex but described the encounter as 'a moral failure'. All charges were dropped over concerns about the housekeeper's credibility. 

A civil case against him was settled out of court when he paid her €1.1 million ($1.5 million). In the aftermath of the New York arrest other allegations were made. During the case, the journalist Tristane Banon came forward with a claim that the married Strauss-Kahn had attempted to rape her. In March 2012 an investigation began in France over his alleged involvement in a prostitution ring. The allegations relate to his supposed involvement in hiring prostitutes for sex parties at hotels in Lille, Paris and Washington. In 2013, French philosopher (yes, apparently that is an actual job in France) Marcela Iacub published a book on her seven-month fling with DSK called Belle et Bête (Beauty and Beast) in which she describes the shamed politician as described DSK as “half-man, half-pig”.

The Thoughts of Gerard! #1: Women and Meat

“My eye will roam with equal pleasure over the face of a beautiful woman as it will over the cuts of meat displayed in a butcher's shop window.” – Decanter magazine (2005)

The Thoughts of Gerard! #2: French Actors

“France used to have wonderful actors, but not anymore. Now it’s just crap, because they’re all egomaniacs and they’re petty. They strain for hours to shit a tiny turd! Whatever happened to the great shits of yesteryear?” – Interview magazine (1990)

The Thoughts of Gerard! #3: On Butchering Meat For His Restaurants

“Before killing something, I always talk to it. An animal that’s been caressed before it’s killed dies peacefully. If an animal is slaughtered in a stress-free way, it tastes better.” – Decanter magazine (2005)

The Thoughts of Gerard! #4: Just How Poor Were You As A Kid?

“We were so poor that Christmas, we had maybe one orange. But I had my freedom.” 

The Thoughts of Gerard! #5: What Do You Think of Directors?

“The relationship between an actor and a director is like a love story between a man and a woman. Sometimes I'm the woman.” – Imdb

The Thoughts of Gerard! #6: What Do You Think of Women?

"I think we can learn everything from women. And I especially learnt from women who have been my lovers or my mistresses. But I also learnt a lot from female writers, like Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin. I prefer them to, say, Hemingway, and I would always prefer them. Although I very much like F Scott Fitzgerald... Also because these women are born mothers. They live as mothers. And they often wait; they wait for something in their life, especially if they're strong women. And these are the human beings that make me patient, make me want to wait and accept inertia." - The Independent interview (May 2011)

The Thoughts of Gerard! #7: What about Religion?

“Catholicism is very strange, because it’s a religion that forgives, that absolves. But it’s so twisted, with its seven deadly sins and all that. So I became a Muslim for two years, from fifteen to seventeen... I have a mystical side, you know... But my wife told me that a guy who doesn’t drink and who doesn’t eat pork just because he’s a Muslim is a real dud. I said, “You know, you’re absolutely right.” – Interview magazine (1990)

The Thoughts of Gerard! #8: How Are You Now?

“I’m at a delicate age. I’m volatile, as they say of wine when it’s in danger of turning into vinegar. I have the temperament of a wild man; I’m capable of doing anything. But it’s not out of anger toward others, it’s an anger toward oneself. A total abjection which brings on masochism: you’re never in agreement with yourself. So I’m the opposite of an egomaniac but I’m still a pain in the ass.” – The Independent interview (May 2011)

Depardieu’s Farewell to France.

“...I give you my passport and Social Security, which I've never used. We no longer have the same homeland, I'm a true European, a citizen of the world, as my father has always taught.”

“I do not blame all those who have cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, or drink too much alcohol, or those who sleep on their scooter. I'm one of them, as your dear media likes so much to repeat.”

“I never killed anybody, I do not think I've acted in an unworthy manner. I paid €145 million in tax over the past 45 years. I have created work for 80 people in businesses which are managed by them.“


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