Gerard Depardieu, France’s top movie icon, is a 50-something Hell’s Angel with a lust for life verging on the kamikaze. The limp-haired action man, who made crumpled clothes an art form, insists he’s just an ordinary guy. No yacht, chauffeur driven Rolls or private make-up artist for gorgeous “Ge-Ge”, as he is adoringly known. Just a powerful Yamaha motor-bike, which a French judge suggested better stay in the garage, following a shunt involving Depardieu and a drop too much red wine.
Rough-hewn, ungainly, a walking testosterone event, his bulbous nose and ski-run chin are a gift to caricaturists. Yet he has a charisma and magnetism that fills the screen; an intense energy drives him in his work. “He is the soul of France, the undisputed Master of the French cinema ”, says Bertrand Blier, the writer/director of several Depardieu epics, including the Oscar winning Get Out Your Handkerchiefs “Like all great stars, Gerard’s is art brut, a raw talent. They learn a little technique doing theatre, but the rest is inside them. Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Mastroianni; he’s in that great class”, explains Blier. Acting from his ample girth, Depardieu portrays macho-man, whispering, raging and charming his way through the classics, although even the most passionate fans wish L’Oreal could do something with the lank locks.
His cast of characters is endless. Christophercolumbus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jean de Florette, Rodin, Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, the enigmatic Martin Guerre, the suicidal chef Fritz Vatel. Who can forget that sexy accent in the 1990 production of Green Card, when Ge-Ge first seduced Hollywood? As a scruffy Gitane-smoking French alien, in order to stay legally in the USA, he undergoes a marriage of convenience to a beautiful up-tight, vegetarian prude, played by Andie McDowell. “I never research my characters”, he admits. “I prefer to join my skin to a character’s emotional being”. His instinct seems to work, Ge-Ge starred in over a 100 films during his 36-year career.
“When we receive scripts, the joke is to ask why Depardieu has not taken the role, or to enquire what’s wrong with the production”, jokes Daniel Auteuil , a close friend and frequent co-star.
Following a quadruple heart by-pass Depardieu dropped 30 kilos in three weeks, stopped smoking and decided, “there’s something relaxing being in a near death situation. I’m not afraid of dying, but it’s sad for those left behind”. The gentle giant who eats with both hands, acts with both fists is, according to Paris-Match, “doing a little sport and trying to control his appetite”. Nobody takes that seriously. “Maybe just a little jog through the vineyards”, he joked to Jonathan Ross, during a TV interview.
Wine is Depardieu’s passion, “Winemaker” the job description on his passport. His medieval Chateau de Tigné, in the Anjou region of France, produces all the wine for Planet Hollywood restaurants worldwide. “Taste the red and you have a perfect portrait of the man and his temperament”, explains the wine critic of Figaro newspaper. “It’s earthy and honest, exactly like Depardieu, on screen and in real life. And, like him, the reds should be kept for two or three years to allow them to calm down!” Depardieu rarely comments on his vineyards, his films, or his private life. He avoids interviews, finding them intrusive and boring. “I don’t need to be intelligent or not intelligent”, he told David Letterman. “Contractual obligations often mean that I am obliged to reveal too much personal detail. I refuse to explain my life to anyone.”, he sniffs.
The son of a weaver, and a mother who found comfort in weekly visits to the cinema, Depardieu had a difficult childhood. An ungainly stuttering boy he played truant from school, spending his days racing about, hellbent and hyperactive. He admits he stole cars and sold black-market cigarettes and whisky to Americans soldiers. Of the gun he carried, he shrugs: “Nothing wrong with that, I brandished it for a week to get street cred with my pals”. Aged 15, he walked out of school and left the nowhere town of Chateauroux for the bright lights of the big city. In Paris he worked in a print shop and, on the advise of the print shop owner, signed up for an acting course. “I was totally unsuited to acting but decided to take his advise”, Depardieu recalls. He quickly realised acting could help him communicate, “When you come from a background like mine, the class difference is so enormous you are scared to open your mouth”, he admits. The printer also put a book by Provence novelist Jean Giono into his hand and, “that book was a revelation, it seemed to solve all my problems, reconciled me with life”.
“It’s all in the hands”, he sighs, talking about cooking, but meaning everything. Having played Vatel (the chef who committed suicide in 1671 when the provisions for a banquet failed to turn up) owning a restaurant holds no fear. Especially when he has chef Laurent Audiot (ex-Marius et Jeanette). Fontaine Gaillon is a perfect gem, located in a 17th century Hotel Particulier, between Palais Royal and The Opera. In summer the terrace garden and the tinkle of the fountain is positively zen. Inside there is the main-dining room and above the creaking staircase five private rooms. The staff are very snooty, prowl around the packed tables like extras on the film-set. Depardieu always sits with his back to the wall, but there’s no mistaking who it is. It’s a great place to go for a platter of oysters, a plate of freshly thin cut ham. “The cochon due lait is a delight”, says a client. “Put me down for the millefeuille” insists another. The plush Bordeaux coloured velvet banquettes encourage conversation, Depardieu salutes his friends, talks about his forthcoming trip to Mexico and his recent trip to Ukraine where he’s considering producing wine with Ukrainian grapes, French technology. Now producing wines with winemaker Bernard Magrez, Depardieu has interests in vineyards in Bordeaux, Languedoc, the South of France, Spain, Morocco and Argentina. “For me wine is a communion. It encourages discussion and conviviality. I can be happy on this earth with very little, but I like to have a lot in my glass”, he says with that special grin.
La Fontaine Gaillon,
(Metro: 4 Septembre),
T: 01 47 42 63 22