The symbolism has not been lost on the French. When France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, the CEO and main shareholder of the luxury behemoth LVMH, applied for Belgian citizenship last August, it was easy for Socialists to paint him as an unpatriotic, despicable fat cat. “Get lost, you rich b------” blasted a headline on the front page of Libération, the Left-wing daily, effectively capturing the national mood.
But Depardieu is a vastly different proposition from a wealthy tycoon and former asset-stripper whose children’s weddings warrant 10-page spreads in society magazines. When Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s prime minister, contemptuously called him “a pathetic loser”, Depardieu shot back with an open letter published on Sunday. “I was born in 1948,” he wrote, “I started working aged 14, as a printer, as a warehouseman, then as an actor, and I’ve always paid my taxes.” Over 45 years, Depardieu said, he had paid 145 million euros in tax, and to this day employs 80 people. Last year he paid taxes amounting to 85 per cent of his income. “I am neither worthy of pity nor admirable, but I shall not be called 'pathetic’,” he concluded, saying that he was sending back his French passport.
For a few hours, the government spin doctors thought the French, whose deep mistrust of money is rooted in a dual heritage of Catholicism and unreconstructed Marxism, would join in the public shaming. It did not happen. An online poll conducted by the popular Le Parisien tabloid showed almost 70 per cent supporting the country’s wayward son and poster boy for glorious political incorrectness.
Depardieu has lit up on Jonathan Ross’s show (and growlingly ground his cigarette stub into the studio carpet after a heated exchange); has urinated in an overflowing plastic bottle on an Air France plane after being refused permission to use the loo; has kicked the fenders off an offending car which had crowded him in a Paris street; once peed (not on purpose) on the leg of a Deauville policeman who asked for an autograph in a car park; has punched countless paparazzi on three continents; and over the years has managed to alienate many fellow stars with the kind of blunt talk no luvvie would ever utter. “She has nothing, I can’t even comprehend how she made 50 movies,” he once said of Juliette Binoche.
Depardieu is excessive in every way, but he’s never been a hypocrite: there have been no stints in rehab after one too many drunken brawls; no staged acts of contrition at any moment of his chaotic private life; no tabloid-monitored diets or fitness regimes. A working-class boy with no formal training but a miraculous gift for bringing to life the most complex nuances of almost every character he has played, he manages to make the classics as accessible as Asterix. He has made over 170 movies and given memorable stage performances – his Tartuffe, the protagonist of Molière’s eponymous play, ranks up there with Louis Jouvet’s historic 1950 performance, exposing the vulnerability and vertiginous loss of control of a devout hypocrite usually played for laughs. He makes his own wine from his own vineyards, owns two restaurants, has written cookbooks of hearty traditional French cuisine. He is, perhaps, a compendium of what the French most aspire to be, taken to epic heights.
He’s been an amnesiac Napoleonic colonel under the Bourbon kings (Le Colonel Chabert); the Provençal peasant ruined by the drought in Jean de Florette; Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and screen; Christopher Columbus for Ridley Scott; Reynaldo in Branagh’s Hamlet. He has worked with Bertolucci, Ang Lee (in Life of Pi), Godard, Resnais, Handke, Truffaut, Wajda, Weir; he’s been Jean Valjean and Rasputin. In short, he is a monument, and he is very difficult to hate.
I remember seeing him at a Cannes film festival party, more than 20 years ago, given in a villa on the hills by Premiere magazine when it was edited by the magnificent Michèle Halberstadt. It was raining violently, the music was blaring in every room of the house, and alone in the sodden garden, in the middle of a waterlogged flowerbed, drenched, his face to the starless sky, like an Easter Island statue, was Depardieu, howling at the cloud-veiled moon. Now that he is settling in an 800,000-euro Walloon house less than a mile from the French border, I can imagine him howling in just the same way at the Hollande crowd and assorted spin doctors. He won’t let them forget him.
© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012