The New Wave of Gérard Depardieu
A physical presence, he has willed the medium to accommodate him.
In 1999 he played Obelix in the live-action adaptation of the Franco-Belgium comic Asterix and Obelix, one of the best-selling comics in the world. The movie was a wild success, and launched a franchise that has proven to be France’s most successful blockbuster series of all time. As Obelix, the giant Gaul with superhuman strength, Depardieu took his career into a slow transition, from sex symbol to children’s film star; the role would define his screen presence from 2000 to 2010, obscuring his changing body and persona. Having been presented as literally larger than life, he was, upon finally moving away from that blockbuster role, unrecognizable to many audiences.
When Depardieu filled the role of Serge in Mammuth in 2010, his new screen presence was surprising for critics and audiences. With long greasy hair and an imposing, overweight figure, long gone was the heartthrob of the 1990s. Writing for Variety, Jay Weissberg summed up the general perception: “There’s really no polite way to describe the star’s look here, reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler, but more in keeping with the rules of gravity.” Snide and unforgiving comments dominated the film’s discourse, overshadowing discussions of Depardieu's performance or the quality of the film.
In fact, the discourse surrounding Depardieu from that moment on has emphasized polite ways to call to attention to his appearance, dancing around words like “ugly” or “disheveled” rather than saying them outright. This in spite of it becoming clear that directors were casting him as often for his magnetic screen presence as they were for his body. Unlike other international stars who chase after their youth, Depardieu was reinvented in this new chapter of his life.
As a reintroduction to the world, Mammuth presented a perfect opportunity to showcase his intensity and strength. The actor's physicality comes first in the film, as his hulking figure is slumped forward and defeated. The film’s journey, which has him as a newly retired slaughterhouse worker traveling across France collecting statements from former employers in order to receive his pension, hints at rather than fully articulates the character’s wild past.
As if carved out of grainy 16mm celluloid itself, every mark, blemish, and line of Depardieu’s face and body rise to the surface. As an embodiment of contradictions—strong but defeated, ugly but beautiful, large but diminutive—his physicality controls the direction of the film. The appeal that made him a huge star rises to the surface as he reveals the true-to-life psyche of a working-class man entering retirement and finding himself again. Hardened by labor, his quest may be politicized, but the performance is not. Focusing on the micro elements of the narrative, Depardieu doesn’t live beyond the confines of his character’s experience. The quietness of the role, which relies more on listening than speaking, suggests a contemplative if not simple man who's more comfortable working with his hands than with the demands of bureaucracy.
In one scene at a bar, Serge meets a security worker looking for a fight. The younger man aggressively moves into his personal space, juts his chin forward and emphasizes each word with a forward jerking head movement. Seeming much smaller than him, Depardieu nonetheless plays the scene as a man used to holding his ground. He barely speaks but he maintains eye contact and embodies stillness. He gains the high ground without doing much of anything, and finally just walks away from the scene, pulling the air out of the fight.
While Depardieu had been working as an actor since the early 1970s, his physicality often suggested a lifetime of hard labor. And although it did evoke the hardened vulnerability that had helped launch him as a star, his role in Mammuth also signaled an important change of pace for the actor.
In stark contrast to that role, just a few years later in Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, the physicality that once came across as vulnerable now reads as vulgar. As Serge, Depardieu embodied a working man who used his physical strength to make his living. As the Dominique Strauss-Kahn-inspired Mr. Devereux, a controversial career politician, that same physicality represents a lifetime of ease and privilege.
While a large number of Depardieu’s films since 2010 have featured his body prominently, none use it as effectively or as brazenly as Welcome to New York. As the film’s first half presents Devereux as a man with infinite appetites unaccustomed to waiting, his bulbous figure and heaving, grunting cadence contrasts with the beautiful women he employs for his pleasure. In the film’s scene of attempted rape, Devereux is presented completely nude—a monstrous, albeit vulnerable, embodiment of capitalism. Here his size isn't merely imposing; it becomes fragile, and painfully human, as a certain weakness of spirit in the face of infinite power is painted across his body. Evoking Roman decadence, Depardieu gives a Bacchic representation of wealth and pleasure—his body and forcefulness suggesting a man whose moral compass has long been twisted beyond recognition. Rather than have his body limit him, he extends it towards everyone and everything in his reach, absorbing and controlling all.
Ferrara blurs the line between Depardieu the actor and Devereux the character, suggesting a direct continuity. And Depardieu, by now well known as a controversial individualist in real life, seems at times to encourage this. An early interview within the film sees Devereux discussing acting, and it's unclear as to whether the film is breaking the fourth wall or not; Depardieu’s performance seems well in line with his own interviews. This purposeful ambiguity suggests the increasingly fine line between celebrity and politics in the contemporary world, both performative by nature for better and worse.
In recent years, filmmaker Guillaume Nicloux has perhaps most exploited Depardieu’s larger-than-life persona, in roles where he plays, more or less, himself. Discussing his role in Valley of Love, which reunited him with former co-star Isabelle Huppert, Depardieu told a French television program that he wasn't playing a character, explaining, "I am who I am." In Nicloux’s follow-up, The End, Depardieu plays an unnamed hunter searching the woods for a lost dog. Borderline experimental and somewhat middling, the film presupposes an understanding of who Depardieu is, imagining him as himself in a magical-realist environment.
Nearing seventy and after more than three decades, Gérard Depardieu clearly has entered a new phase of his career. Not interested in recapturing the sex symbol of his youth, he's moved on to performing an ongoing self-interrogation. With a figure more familiar in the works of Rembrandt than in cinema, Depardieu has willed the medium to accommodate him, and has pushed boundaries in experimental and forward-thinking films.