Gerard Depardieu had finished “Cyrano de Bergerac” in Paris at 5 the previous afternoon and hopped a plane to Manhattan, where his film “Too Beautiful for You” was the opening-night attraction at the New York Film Festival.
He was still wearing the long hair and a mustache grown for Cyrano, just in case retakes would be needed. Lumberjack-large and in a smock-like black shirt and black trousers, he suggested Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac more than Rodin, whom he plays in “Camille Claudel,” which opens Dec. 22 in Los Angeles.
In “Too Beautiful for You,” which will be released here in February, Depardieu plays a car dealer torn between his love for his exquisitely beautiful wife and a plain, frumpy but passionately devoted mistress. It is a reordering of the classic triangle, with sharp and wounding corners however it’s turned.
The film is also his fifth with writer-director Bertrand Blier. Their first collaboration, “Going Places” (“Les Valseuses”) in 1974, established Depardieu as a star. He and the late Patrick Dewaere played a pair of layabouts who meet up, with fateful consequences, with Jeanne Moreau.
“I was young, unconscious and very dangerous,” Depardieu said in his hotel suite the afternoon after the festival opening. “My father saw the film and said, ‘Ah, yes, that’s Gerard all right.’ ”
Depardieu spoke through a translator, with tentative bursts of English. He will make his second film in English in New York and Los Angeles starting in February. It is “The Green Card,” which director Peter Weir (“Dead Poets Society”) wrote especially for Depardieu.
His first venture in English, “I Want to Go Home,” directed by Alain Resnais from a script by Jules Feiffer, was a success at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. In it, lyricist Adolph Green plays a temporarily expatriate cartoonist, Depardieu a Flaubert scholar.
Depardieu somewhat resembles Michael Caine in his apparently compulsive drive to work constantly, but money does not seem to be the immediate object.
“Sometimes, I make a film for two bottles of good wine,” he says. “I made three films without being paid at all, and none is a success. I make no money yet from ‘Too Beautiful for You.’ But,” he explains with a devastating smile, “I have a sympathetic banker.”
In fact, he produces or co-produces all his own films now. “Truffaut told me how to get more involved,” Depardieu says. “It’s better not to get paid a lot. I don’t want to have to make movies just to pay taxes.” He admits he is in the 60% bracket. “Anyway, it stifles interesting projects to ask for a lot of money at the beginning.”
But even so, no benefits will be required for him. A few years ago, he bought a castle, with vineyards, in Anjou. Joan of Arc is said to have slept there.
“The ’89 vintage is very good, great,” Depardieu says. He loves the land and watching the vines and, occasionally, he adds, he feels some of the resonances of “Jean de Florette,” one of the films in which he achieved a great critical success and in which feelings about land was a central theme.
If he hints of Caine in his constant employment, Depardieu also has a parallel with Steve McQueen as a man whose early teen-age years could have as easily led him to jail as to fame and fortune.
He grew up in the small city of Chateauroux in central France, with an American air base just outside town. “I saw rock ‘n’ roll movies. It was a big taste of American culture.” He fell in love with blue jeans and T-shirts and kept himself supplied, he says, by stealing them from laundry lines. He admits that he was a juvenile delinquent in training.
He also saw his first blacks--GIs who were, he says, “received like gods” because of their unfamiliarity. He had a casual black girlfriend and was kissing her when a French friend angrily told him off. “It was my first experience with racism,” Depardieu says, “so of course I kept on kissing her, as my personal blow against racism.”
He and his pals hung out at the train station, watching with envy as people left for the mysterious glamour of Paris. One pal who was studying acting in Paris came home on a visit and it did not take much urging to persuade Depardieu to come back with him.
“It was easier to leave home then,” Depardieu explains. He was 15. He joined a workshop and his life and education began again. At 16, already working in theater, he met Elizabeth Guignot, who became his wife and still is.
“I discovered immediately that I am never afraid on stage. I am nervous in sports, but I am at peace on the stage.” With his first money, he bought an alarm clock and a book. “I learned again how to read, to decipher tragedy, to understand things I didn’t really understand.”
Not yet 17, he made his first film, a small documentary by Roger Lennart, “the patron of my new life,” about Socrates as the first beatnik. He started “Christmas Carol” with Agnes Varda but it was never finished. (“People started living and stopped shooting,” he says cryptically.)
On stage, he did David Storey’s “Home” and was offered a role in the Paris production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but turned it down because he thought the translation failed to do justice to the material.
He made his first feature at 22 in 1970 and has hardly paused since. He appeared in Marguerite Duras’ “Nathalie Granger” in 1972 and in 1974 the significant “Going Places,” which his aura of smoldering danger helped make an international success.
The work since is an anthology of the best contemporary French and European cinema: Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” Resnais’ “My Uncle in America,” Truffaut’s “The Last Metro,” Daniel Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre,” Andrzej Wajda’s “Danton,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900,” Maurice Pialat’s “Under the Sign of Satan” (best film at the 1987 Cannes festival) and Claude Berri’s “Jean de Florette.” It is a partial list.
Blier’s “Too Beautiful for You” is frequently funny and just as frequently baffling, not least to Depardieu. “After seven weeks of shooting, I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing.’ Blier and I were pacing around a courtyard and he looked pale and terrible. He said it was the food we had yesterday. I said, ‘No, it’s the film.’ ”
In “Camille Claudel,” which was directed by veteran cinematographer Bruno Nuytten, Depardieu’s Rodin is inevitably overshadowed by Isabelle Adjani’s extraordinary performance as the young protegee (sister of the poet Paul Claudel) who went mad for the lost love of him. But his Rodin--imperious, self-centered, driven, leaning close to models and materials because of acute myopia, pushing and tugging to arrange the masses he could see in the mind’s eye--is a remarkable characterization. In an actor’s magical mathematics, it is all Rodin, and all Depardieu.
“I like playing historic personages,” he says. “I learn more of my own history.” Contemplating Rodin, he confesses, “The one trap I’ve fallen into is playing characters who are a little bit cowardly. I’ve made a true career of masochism.”