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Fast-forward from fin-de-siècle France in 1897 to, well, debut-de-siècle France in 2012, yet the stage setting seems the same. The nation, reeling from another great recession, is again sinking in an economic bog; relations are increasingly testy with a powerful Germany and isolationist Britain; demagogues again stokes fears of immigrants (in this case, Arabs rather than Jews); and while Socialists and conservatives seem equally powerless in resolving these problems, they have succeeded in creating a different affair, but one that involves not Dreyfus, but Depardieu.
Two weeks ago, France’s most beloved actor decided to decamp to Belgium. The reasons had little to do with honor, less with love, and much with income taxes. The Socialist government of François Hollande, confronting a stalling economy, festering unemployment, and a dodgy credit rating, enacted a temporary tax on France’s wealthiest citizens: a 75% marginal tax on yearly incomes exceeding one million euros. While the Socialists depicted the tax as a “patriotic duty,” a number of critics — not coincidentally, many of them among France’s one percent — denounced the tax as unjust.
When Depardieu’s move to Belgium, which boasts a less punishing tax rate, became public, the government’s reaction was immediate. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault dismissed the move as “shabby,” while his minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti, no doubt inspired by Rostand’s rhetoric, declared straight-faced that Depardieu was “deserting the battlefield in the midst of the war against the economic crisis.” The Socialist spokesperson, David Assouline, concluded Depardieu “is playing the worst role of his career.”
As Assouline’s remark reveals, the Depardieu Affair has blurred the lines between film and politics. Over the years, Depardieu has left his mark on the French imagination not just as Cyrano, but as a legion of other republican icons: Obelix, the massive defender of Gaul against Roman imperialism; Maheu, the mammoth miner in Zola’s Germinal, defending the French worker against corporate greed; Jean Valjean, Hugo’s monumental embodiment of the French people resistance to the forces of tyranny; and Danton in Andresz Wajda’s film of the same name, portraying the tragic revolutionary figure who rivals Cyrano in his eloquent fidelity to human values.
As a result, when Depardieu, wounded by the Socialist reactions, threatened to return his French passport, the shock was seismic. But it should not have been surprising, for there is more than one Depardieu. As the film scholar Pierre Maillot observes, there is also Depardieu’s image of the “voyou,” or thug, projected on countless screens over the years. From “Loulou” to “Going Places,” Depardieu has played characters hostile to law and convention. This particular Depardieu, moreover, has bled into the real Depardieu. His clashes with the public are legion: it is as if he had taken to heart Cyrano’s boast: “To displease is my chief pleasure.”
It is against these opposing types that we need to place Depardieu’s decision to play Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Abel Ferrara’s upcoming biopic. Depardieu despises the man who, once seemingly destined to become France’s president, has since been revealed to be a vile sexual predator. Describing DSK as “smug and arrogant,” Depardieu declared: “It is because I dislike him that I am going to play him.” Yet a simple glance at the two men suggests that Depardieu, who shares with DSK the same Rabelaisian girth, began playing some version of the fallen Socialist politician long before Ferrara’s film. There are the instances where he has insulted women reporters and actors in public, not to mention relieve himself in front of an airplane stewardess. (Let us leave to one side his antics with foreign despots and Vladimir Putin’s offer of citizenship.)
Is all of this panache? Or, instead, is it simply punk? Is it possible that Cyrano was greater than his nose, but Depardieu (and, indeed, DSK) seem to be less than their bellies? For a nation immersed as deeply in film as France — indeed, one criticism leveled at Depardieu is that he is betraying the state-subsidized film industry that made him a star — the confusion between these two screen images is understandable. That both one and the other have equally powerful claims on the French imagination at this critical moment in the nation’s history is, as Cyrano might say, tragique.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).