14 October 2008

Guillaume Depardieu

With Jeanne Balibar, in Ne touchez pas...

Guillaume Depardieu has died, at age 37. The oldest son of Gérard Depardieu, France’s most important actor, Guillaume himself became an actor. Yet if he drew any advantage from his family connections, if his life was made in any way easier by being a “fils de” (“son of,” which designates a separate social class in France), he seldom showed it. He struggled with drugs and alcohol, lost a leg following a motorcycle accident, and ran afoul of the law the first time at age 17, when he was imprisoned on drug charges. He was also a musician, a composer, and a father.

Starting now, he’ll likely be called the James Dean of modern France, though such a title will gloss over the important differences in origins, status, and talent between the two men. Dean was a great actor; though Guillaume Depardieu was not, he remained a troubling presence onscreen, darkening and deepening any character he played not through technique but transparency. Even before we knew his real-life fate, we could see his turmoil.

In his youth: I’m not sure what movie this is from.

I first saw him in Tous les matins du monde, a fascinating historical picture in which he plays the young Marin Marais, studying composition with Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, about whom almost nothing is known. Far from a glossy costume drama, the picture makes strong statements about art — but never explicitly. What is the power of music? The young Marais pesters Sainte Colombe for answers in words, but the old man can answer only in more music. Guillaume Depardieu was 20 when the film was made; Marais in old age is played by his father, Gérard. Nitpickers note that, among the cast, Guillaume is the only actor who approximates correct bowing on the viola da gamba; he studied cello as a boy.

Not fake: With Yekaterina Golubeva in Pola X

A few years later, Guillaume earned the dubious distinction of not faking a sex scene in Léos Carax’s Pola X, an adaptation of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, a book I find unbearable. (The film’s title is an anagram of the novel’s title in French, the “X” signifying that this is the tenth draft of the screenplay.) Beyond its voyeuristic frisson, Depardieu’s performance, like the movie, is compelling, and his rapidly aging face bears a haunted expression that serves the character well. At the time of filming, in 1999, he’d already sustained the injury and staph infection that led to the loss of his right leg; it was amputated in 2003.

Last year, haggard now and playing a French general who hobbles on a wounded leg, Guillaume Depardieu delivered his most impressive performance (at least in movies I’ve seen), in Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hâche, an adaptation of Balzac’s novella La Duchesse de Langeais. One sensed in him a barely controlled force, more striking opposite the reed-slender Duchess of Jeanne Balibar, and in his performance the lines between anger and sexual desire were blurred intentionally.

Beyond his years: In Ne touchez pas...

He’d grown as an actor. Was he transforming his talent, or was it transforming him? Easy enough to say that his personal troubles found expression in his art, but that’s reductive and possibly untrue. He’s said to have written an opera while he was convalescing from the amputation: does it necessarily follow that his opera is brilliant? Nonetheless, I’d like to think that he was on to something, and that as an audience member I’ve been cheated.

He was never the next James Dean, and he might never have become the next Gérard Depardieu. But watching him become the greatest Guillaume Depardieu of our time would have been a rare opportunity.

With his father

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of all the reports of Guillaume's untimely death, yours is really the most heartfelt and incisive that I've read. We don't hear much of him in the US, but I am a devoted fan, so I have searched for as much info as I could find online. His performances were always profound and captivating. I was so pleased to see that he had a few new films coming out in the next year. I thought, "finally, I can get excited about having a favorite actor again!" It will be bittersweet to see his last films. It breaks my heart.