PARIS — It was a Sunday morning in October of somber skies and light rain. But we couldn't have been more charged up, heading to Gérard Depardieu’s residence in the 6th arrondissement of central Paris. With an appointment for a newspaper interview and photo shoot, we were told the legendary actor was in an excellent mood, sober and loquacious.
Ah, Depardieu! Some continue to despise him, dismissed as a coarse, drunken buffoon, an actor who — they say — hasn’t been in a good movie for so long ago that nobody remembers when or what it was. We are not among these critics. For us, it the fulfillment of a long-held dream to sit down and talk to the actor who revolutionized acting in France, like Marlon Brando once did in the United States. Sure, his movies have long ceased to captivate our attention, but that’s not a problem in itself: He’s been in so many great ones in the past that it is already a career for the ages.
As a matter of fact, we didn’t come to talk about cinema, and Depardieu, 68, doesn’t talk about past films. Nostalgia is a luxury that those who’ve had a rich life can’t afford — it could kill them. No, as it happens, the actor has a new book coming out, Monstre, featuring on the cover a picture of him à la Francis Bacon. It’s a sort of follow-up from Innocent, his previous work released in 2015 but with a more intimate, more personal tone. The underlying theme? In a world ruled by norms, there’s no more room for monsters, for those on the margins, all excess is banned.
Here are a few selected excerpts: “Talent is an encounter with mystery. And I’m struggling to feel this mystery these days. Everything seems so controlled, everywhere;” “I’ve had very beautiful friendships with people who were monstrous, because they were monstrously human;” “There used to be a kind of cinema that perfectly accepted this monstrosity: that was Italian cinema;” “We now live in a society that shamelessly displays its pornography but never favors love.”
He also writes about writers Stefan Zweig and Michel Houellebecq, films of today (“There are, finally, these so-called art films, often filled with total sadness, deadly boring, in which everything is filmed in an ugly, dirty manner, and which give off this smell of shit in which the Cannes Festival likes to exhibit its jewels”), America (“spiritual desert”), religion, the obsession with social media, globalization, and more. These are his meditations, and they form a strangely fascinating philosophy filled with the common sense of the countryside. This was what we had come to talk about. But nothing went as planned.
There will be pandemics.
Our first glimpse of him was from the back. He was standing there, massive, looking at some document on his gigantic table. He was wearing a black shirt, jeans and black Crocs on his feet. Then he turned to us, shook our hands and offered us coffee. He was courteous, nice. He lit up a Gitane.
We presented him with a gift, a volume of poetry about good food. He noted that the person who assembled this collection of poems was born in 1972, grimaced, then he began a lengthy diatribe: “We began eating very poorly in the 1970s … because of supermarkets. Supermarkets have killed not only agriculture but the little things too. When you have mass production, that’s when you end up with Monsanto. Back in the days, farmers would make their own seeds and, year in year out, we’d eat. Plus, zero-kilometer existed way back then because restaurants would get their ingredients locally. There were no planes to bring you cherries or strawberries in winter. This is all completely stupid ..."
He spoke about a laboratory in Geneva specialized in stock vegetables like cabbage and beets. "That’s what people would eat in the Middle Ages, in France. But everything’s going down the drain now. Not to mention that the planet has more and more inhabitants… Eight billion human beings! That leaves China! China has always lived like that. You have Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing or Shaolin but, if you go back to the mountains, you’ll go through feudal villages. They’re living like in the Middle Ages. They shit in the water and then boil it to make tea. Eight billion on the planet, that’s not possible! There will be pandemics and all sorts of things, because the planet can’t bear that!”
Sure. But what about the new book, the eradication of monsters and all that? There was a hint of annoyance when he replied: “There aren’t normal people any longer because there’s no culture anymore. Culture is like the margin in school books. You were never supposed to write in the margin and now, the margin is gone. People have no culture and there is no cultural identity anymore. When people have culture, they are belittled!”
He continued with barely a pause: “Our only luck is the migrants, meaning the world of tomorrow once the people are integrated. The minorities of yesterday have become today’s majority. The world has forgotten that 20,000 years ago, all the Balkan countries crossed the Bering Strait… Migrants! When you read a school book from the 1950s about the U.S. [he picked up a old book to better illustrate his words], there’s no mention of Native Americans! Listen to this! ‘Two centuries ago, the biggest economic and political power of today wasn’t born yet.’ You think that the Indians were waiting for them, for all these morons expelled from Old Europe, to come with their preachers and their abominable religious fundamentalism, while they had their shamanism, their rules, were healing each other with plants? It’s written in black and white, since we’ve been going to school: ‘Indians come from Canada.’ But it’s not true!”
Under the canopy of heaven.
And then our host embarked with glee upon another rant about brachiosauruses, Abraham sleeping with his mistress under the canopy of heaven, Ismael, Ptolemy, the “stupid Crusaders”, Islam and Judaism.
It was clear from the get-go that Depardieu’s brain was working at full blast, like a rollercoaster in an almost psychedelic explosion. During this "non-interview," the actor kept returning to his passion, History, everything from the Romanov family and Ivan the Terrible to Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire.
We couldn’t ask another question without him zooming up to more recent history: Kim Jong-un, “the Trumpet” and Merkel. “This is all just for show, it’s like a movie trailer: you know everything about the film before you’ve seen it,” he concludes. “That’s why cinema is less and less interesting. Me, I just see the movies that get panned by the critics.” What a stream!
We tried to make him talk about France. “Unlike what the journalists say, I didn’t ditch the country because of high taxes. No. Otherwise, I’d have left long before! What I can’t stand anymore, and that’s why this country bores the shit out of me, it’s to see that the French are sad as death. They’re so shameful they don’t even dare to look at their land. France is a beautiful country, but the people are lost. When I’m in France, I stay here, in my home with my books. I don’t want to go out there and see the disaster. We’re beyond Orwell: We’re in Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle, where nobody understands anything anymore. Universal suffrage is over: we’re led by Apple and Zuckerberg.”
What about the French language, which he truly mastered only late in his life, and is a subject in Monstre? “But why do you ask me about that? It’s in the book! I’m not going to repeat myself!”
Time was running out, and the atmosphere was beyond surreal. One last time, we attempted to talk about the book, to ask a new question. He went wild and got up. “I’ve already said all that in the book!”
So we put away our notes and let him speak, in a singular and splendid esprit d'escalier for all the topics he might have mastered: Vassili Grossman, Crimean history, Herod, the life of Kalashnikov, a passion for Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem, Saint Augustine — of course, Averroes — whom he loves, Shakespeare, Maimonides, François Hollande, Bernard Henri-Lévy, Napoléon and Koh Lanta, the French version of TV reality show Survivor. An impassioned and unlikely list of topics, but surely not what we’d come for.
So we would be the ones to wind up cutting the interview short. Evidently, our stupid questions bored the legendary actor to death. We walked out of the mansion stunned. It wasn’t quite noon, and the sky was still grey. Together with the photographer, we agreed that meeting Gérard Depardieu was “joy … and suffering.”
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