“Paradoxe.” You must call it “Paradoxe,” he said in French, his famously crooked smile as wide as his eyes were squinty and full of play. Incredibly, I sat directly opposite Guillaume Depardieu exactly one year ago, in what was to be my first and as of yet only mock interview—a staggering 45 minutes of tremulousness, disbelief and unease amidst a rapid-fire exchange of ideas, memories, provocations, denunciations, poetry recitations, confessions, self-recrimination, and perhaps a healthy dose of fiction to temper the booze and smoke that spilled from the actor and filled the room with a surfeit of dramatic flair. Before I quite realized that he was instructing me to title this piece “Paradox,” I nodded in agreement as I struggled to settle onto the sofa across from the French actor, clumsily pulling a notebook from my bag and digging deep into the abyss to find a pen. Needless to say, I was caught unaware and he knew that I knew it. His crooked smile began to swell…
Minutes before, the head of the Viennale press office had begged for a favour. The always reliable Air France had wreaked scheduling havoc on the festival’s guests, and the delays and cancellations had also provided an excess of time—time spent waiting, and, in at least one case, spent drinking. Guillaume Depardieu, who had come to promote Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache (2007) and who had an important cameo role in Serge Bozon’s La France (2007), arrived very late and very drunk. The press office had arranged an on-camera interview with the actor timed with his delayed arrival. As was to be the order of the day, the reporter was late and someone was needed to stall Depardieu before he retired to his room and crashed. Just for five minutes, they assured me.
And suddenly there he was, an actor I had long admired, and a man whose reputation for being recalcitrant and unwieldy was almost as famous as his father. Quelle tableau! Depardieu was semi-reclined on a cream-coloured leather sofa, a near-empty tumbler of whisky in his left hand and a cigarette dangling from his right, ashes peppering the ivory carpet. Obsessively playing with his unkempt hair, he fixed my gaze and waited for me to begin. I let him know the publication for which the interview was ostensibly deemed and mentioned a regular film/art column. Before a question could be posed, he interjected and said that the combined moniker of film and art was a fine and quintessential description of Jacques Rivette, that no one he had ever worked with had so embodied the art of cinema “than this small timid man who rarely changes his clothes.” Rivette’s poetry as an artist had given the young actor newfound faith in his chosen profession—one which, he corrected, chose him. Given his lineage, he had little choice but to become an actor. Though while his mother, father, and sister are all actors, Depardieu affirmed that his decision to pursue acting stemmed not from passion, rather out of spite and curiosity—spite for his absent and neglecting renowned father, and curiosity for the kind of life his father was leading away from his kin. Cinema had harboured such a profound mystery over him as a young child that he could not resist its magnetic force as he grew older. Guillaume’s entire body tensed up when he spoke of family, especially of his father whom he cursed and reproached for choosing money over his own son. I remained silent, not knowing whether or not the duo were currently in reconciliation or on the outs, as they perpetually seemed to be. A cloudless warning: Ne touchez pas la hache.
Steered back on topic, Depardieu was very forthcoming about his role as Armand de Montriveau, a wounded French general recently returned from a dangerous campaign in Africa; a cantankerous and anti-social man who falls madly in love with Antoinette de Langeais (a coquettish Jeanne Balibar). Of his co-star, he had very little good to say, suggesting that the onscreen tension, sulfurous and suffocating, was derived not out of sexual desire but from exasperation. Speaking generally, he said “She’s a woman and therefore we cannot understand each other.” And yet, he was effusive about Rivette’s girlfriend who was on set and helped him with his lines as memorization proved to be too difficult. Rumours of Rivette’s young girlfriend, of his late-in-life love affair, had been swirling for some time, and Depardieu, to his credit, wanted to remain discreet on the matter. “It’s true that Rivette is in love with someone quite a bit younger than he, and together they are extremely inspiring.” This was the passion he was most interested in, not the one between Armand and La Duchesse.
Given how close Rivette’s film remains to the original and highly erotic 1834 Balzac novella, La Duchesse de Langeais, the film is 19th-century wordy. When asked if he shared Rivette’s love of Balzac the actor grimaced and shook his head. Depardieu clearly preferred a different sort of romanticism and, in a soft hushed and reverential voice, began reciting the entirety of Le pont de Mirabeau by Guillaume Apollinaire after whom he said his mother named him. He recalled how she used to recite this poem to him as a child. The irony was not lost on either of us that the poem comes from Apollinaire’s famous 1913 collection, Alcools. On the other hand, we couldn’t possibly have known that like the infamous poet, Depardieu was to die prematurely, at the height of his career. Apollinaire was 38 years old when he contracted and succumbed to the Spanish flu; Depardieu would die at 37 from a sudden bout of killer pneumonia.
Despite being offered the part of the wooden de Montriveau for obvious reasons he said, yanking up his pant leg to reveal his prosthetic limb, Depardieu was visibly grateful to Rivette for this role. A difficult role: “The subject is degrading, the most degrading of all” and he therefore strove to embody “a desperate cruelty.” And since he had no respect for Balzac’s text, and was, in fact, repulsed by it, he transformed his dismay into a harsh physical silence—one that resounds with astonishing effect counter to the impudent giggles of La Duchesse. The strength of silence he also learned from Rivette, who was quiet yet commanding on set. Depardieu seemed to have spent much time observing the director with awe, as well as the brilliant cinematographer, William Lubtschansky, whom he rightly called a “great artist”; and who, at 71 years old, is perhaps creating the best work of his extensive career (Garrel’s La frontière de l’aube and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Itinéraire de Jean Bricard, both playing the Viennale in 2008, were fine proof of this assertion).
He then whispered something about neurological problems, but I was unsure to whom he was referring and he refused to repeat himself. Next came a whisky refill. “It’s the paradox I mentioned. Life and art are filled with paradoxes. One sees that in the film. We must adhere to Cartesian tendencies. Or, simply, we do so.” As he downed his drink, I could hear him say faintly, “difficulties in love are degrading, but one must take risks.” Malgré tout, meaning “despite all else,” or “despite everything.”
Malgré tout, as it turns out, is the name of the opera he was writing. “For his family” he said, “his mother, his father, and his sister Julie. They are difficult to live with, but I of course love them,” he confided. At which point, he grew weary and reminiscent, and, as if to atone for all their past tussles, assumed full responsibility for the intermittent riffs with his father. “It’s my fault, it’s really all me,” he trailed off. He took a sip of his drink and began to softly sing. So taken with this performance was I (could it be anything but a performance?), that I did not listen to the lyrics or recognize the song. (Apparently, an album of his songs was due for release in spring of 2009.) His surreal singing tapered off into an animated hum. “Maria Callas is someone I can understand. That kind of solitude, of being alone in the world and wanting to be loved…I believe in love, not ideas, nor intelligence. Look where ideas got us? How can anyone believe in ideas after the Shoah? We must be wary of intelligence. This is another paradox, isn’t it? Just like Guillaume and Rivette! It is very important to resist. One must always resist. That’s what I am, above all: A resister. I will always resist ideas.” Sounds about right, coming from someone who wrote a song called “Je pisse sur votre frontière” and has been combative with not only members of his family, but strangers, girlfriends, fellow actors, the media, the police, and most tragically, with himself.
His has been a sordid and oft-told story; for better or for worse, Depardieu has always worn his heart on his sleeve. When news emerged of his sudden and heartbreaking death on October 13, shocked colleagues and friends expressed their sadness and disbelief. Many noted how “sensitive” he was despite his self-destructive and self-proclaimed masochistic tendencies—ones that manifested into drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, jail time, physical fighting, psychological damage, estrangement, confusion. During our time together, he mentioned on numerous occasions his childhood and his love of children (especially his daughter Louise), and how old he felt—tired, yet hopeful. His well-worn and slightly pockmarked skin and droopy eyes showed palpable signs of age, but, then again, he had been stranded at the airport for several whisky-soaked hours. Still, he appeared handsome, commanding, conflicted, both sure and unsure of himself, playful yet dead serious at once. He spoke as if his life depended on what he said and how forceful he spoke it. On the other hand, he suggested it was all a game, and more often than not, he wavered somewhere in between. It’s this vacillating and near-volcanic tension, its unsettling allure, unreal yet transcendent of the cinema, that has made his roles so memorable, his performances so raw, both unhinged and somehow restrained. He will be remembered for his lasting portrayals of passionate characters from the fringes (such as 1999’s Pola X), as well as his César-winning performance in Pierre Salvadore’s Les apprentis (1995), and his groundbreaking start in the amply praised costume drama Tous les matins du monde (1991), where he played the dashing young cellist, Marin Marais, whom his father would play in the grown-up incarnation. Let’s altogether forget about the opprobrious Aime ton père (2002) and the regrettable co-authored tell-all.
He repeated: “One must be faithful to the paradox, as one must be to the notion of childhood. Between the two, are the grand gestures that one must assume.” Those “grand gestures” were fighting for a place in the world, for justice, reconciliation, for physical relief and comfort, for art and for love. They were reaching for success, more than within reach. Mere months before Depardieu’s death, Cahiers du Cinéma proclaimed him one of the best actors of his generation.
At this past Quinzaine press conference for Bertrand Bonello’s De la guerre, the recalcitrant and unwieldy Depardieu mostly refused to answer questions, though wildly waved his long, veiny arms around like sticks poking from a red Montreal Canadians T-shirt, in apparent disagreement with everyone and everything. He came across as rude and unruly and yet all he wanted to repeat, over and over again, was “I don’t want to live my entire life in a casket.” The embattled microphone that he had brusquely pushed away was pulled in close for the only message he sought to convey. While he was ostensibly referring to Mathieu Almaric’s character, he spoke in the first person and repeated one sentence over and over again.
“Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.”