The window into an actor’s secret self

Special to The Times

Daniel Auteuil likes to rise early and contemplate the day ahead from his airy Ile St.-Louis living room, strewn with contemporary painting and sculpture. The tall windows open onto the Seine. A couple of Cesar awards (France’s equivalent of an Oscar) lie by the fireplace, next to a bronze elephant from India.

France’s leading actor wears the mantle of Gerard Depardieu on a smaller frame, and with far less flamboyance: Auteuil’s art is in underacting, whether in comedy or tragedy, always making it look easy. Yet there is a steady glint of anxiety in the actor’s eyes, his secret self shining through, and he is at his most intriguing when he suffers, as in Pierre Salvadori’s comedy “Apres Vous” (After You), opening Friday in Los Angeles.

Here, Auteuil stars as Antoine, a maitre d’ so good at attending to others that he forgets his own desires. He saves the life of Louis (Jose Garcia), who is set to kill himself over the loss of Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain). Antoine tries to help Louis win Blanche back but falls in love with her in the process. It’s classic Salvadori: Starting with 1993’s “Cible Emouvante” starring Jean Rochefort, Marie Trintignant and Guillaume Depardieu, the director’s comedies boast characters who seem to spring from the same family and form a romantic, offbeat and slightly incestuous trio.


“Salvadori builds subtle comedy on tense situations,” Auteuil said. “Antoine saves Louis but then falls in love with the object of the guy’s depression; he goes from being simply stressed out to guilt-ridden.”

Auteuil, 55, has played in far less subtle comedies. His debut was in “Hair” on the Paris stage, followed by a batch of forgettable movies, until filmmakers -- American director Bob Swaim among the first -- cast him in darker roles. “Even if I play a repulsive killer,” he said, “I want to kill well.” In 1986, he won his first Cesar playing the deformed Ugolin in Claude Berri’s “Jean de Florette” and in the sequel, “Manon des Sources.”

“These movies had universal stories, like westerns,” Auteuil said. “All the elements of the western are there -- the search for water, the clans and conflicts.”

“ ‘Jean de Florette’ was a high point, absolutely fantastic,” he added. “But international success escaped me. I could have gone for an international career instead of staying in France. I didn’t see the opportunity; I took another path, with French directors.”

Those directors have included Andre Techine, Claude Sautet and Patrice Chereau.

Wiry, with eyes like coals, an off-kilter nose and a deep, disquieting voice, Auteuil doesn’t look as if he could get a lot of laughs, nor does he have the profile of the romantic lead. Yet he smolders opposite France’s leading ladies -- Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Adjani, Vanessa Paradis and Emmanuelle Beart, who was Ugolin’s Manon and with whom he lived for 10 years and has a daughter. The couple is now separated.

At Cannes, where he regularly competes -- he won best actor in 1996 for “The Eighth Day” (“Le Huitieme Jour”) -- he played in both a tragedy and a comedy this year. In Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” (“Cache”) opposite Binoche, he’s a family man beset by past demons, and in Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s “To Paint or to Make Love” (“Peindre ou Faire l’Amour”) opposite Sabine Azema, as a meteorologist whose forecast of serene retirement goes astray.


Auteuil, born in Algeria, arrived in Avignon with his parents at age 4. “My roots are in the south,” he says. “My parents were opera and operetta performers, so I spent my childhood on the road, following them. (He wrote an enchanting memoir of their adventures, “Il a Fait l’Idiot a la Chapelle,” illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Sempe.)

“I was an only child,” he sighed, “an only son.... My great grandfather had a very beautiful voice, so did my grandfather and father -- they all sang. I was crushed by all those beautiful voices in the family. So I did something else.”

It was hard at first. “What counted was not who I knew, but little leads, big hopes, and the desire, the sense of existing on stage. Acting is second nature to me.”

In Salvadori’s film there is one hilarious scene in which Auteuil mugs but mostly wears the face of doom. “Antoine is a complex character, and the film could almost be a tragedy, like the great Italian comedies .... ‘Apres Vous’ has that kind of emotion -- our comedies are full of emotion. We are emotional people.”

He thinks that American comedies are designed for audiences to identify with stereotyped characters and situations, whereas French comedies aim to show the atypical, the marginal. “Our films look exotic to Americans. I think that if a French director could make movies for audiences to identify with, he would -- but it’s not easy to find a simple comic idea. A movie like ‘Meet the Parents’ with De Niro and Ben Stiller works so well because there’s instant identification with both characters.”

Auteuil prepares his roles, whether for comedy or tragedy, by going inside himself. “The less I’m told about the character I play, the better off I am. If a director tells me too much, my reaction is, let him play the part. The part I act -- no matter how grim -- never upsets me. It’s not real life.”


And real life?

“Oh, I’m very stressed. My most restful moments are when I work. I ask myself fewer questions.”

He hasn’t done stage work for years. “Theater has too many constraints. I like to rise early in the morning and work all day; that’s a normal day. I don’t like going to the same place every day; that’s theater. These days, I need more air.”