There is no getting around it. Gerard Depardieu is a big man, both in size and reputation. In recent years, his weight has become an added dimension to the characters he essays, much in the same way that Marlon Brando used his girth in his latter years. Indeed, Depardieu could easily be described as the French Brando: he has a screen presence that made him irresistible in his early movies that was particularly evident in 1980's Loulou, in which Isabelle Huppert was enamoured by the loveable rogue. He has had a long career filled with ups (Cyrano De Bergerac, The Last Metro) and downs (Green Card, Babylon AD), so much so that the actor and some-time director has become well acquainted with the highs and lows that his profession has to offer.
As with Brando, his interests are not restricted to acting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, food is a hobby. Depardieu owns a restaurant and has written a popular cookbook. On a darker note, like Brando his personal life has been marked with tragedy. His most famous son, the actor Guillaume Depardieu, lost a leg in a motorbike accident and was reportedly constantly at odds with his father until he died in 2008 at the age of 37 from complications linked to a bout of pneumonia.
But first and foremost, Depardieu is an actor and the good news for his many fans is that he is on top form in his latest film Mammuth, the new comedy from the Belgian avant-garde filmmakers Benoit Delepine and Gustave de Kervern. The co-directors have worked together for a number of years and their wacky, almost abstract, social comedies have a similar sensibility to the Marx brothers. Depardieu plays Serge, who has just retired from his job at a slaughterhouse and isn't cut out for life without work, a fact pointed out by his wife. He needs to sort out his pension, which requires him getting evidence of having worked in various places where he has been paid cash in hand. In pursuit of this, he sets off through the French countryside on a motorbike called Mammuth, meeting weird and off-the-wall characters along the way. The result calls to mind Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, mixed with Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.
In an interview, one can never be quite sure what Depardieu will say next. He doesn't toe the line; he left school at the age of 13 as he didn't like the conformity and rigidity of the timetable. He initially studied dancing - although it's hard to imagine him in tights today - before turning to acting. So it's no surprise when he knocks back the suggestion that there is any connection between his character taking stock of his life in Mammuth and him doing the same now that he's 61. "No, not at all," he barks. "It is just a part of my life. I have had a heart operation and I've had, I don't know how many, but it's about 10 accidents with my motorcycle. This is part of my life. Others are no longer part of my life, because they have died, like [Maurice] Pialat and [Francois] Truffaut, but they are still a part of my life, because I looked at things and they see it in the same way, so it is not an end. Life is not an end. It gives you obstacles and you need energy to live this life."
He's not always coherent and likes to run off on tangents with a politician's disregard for the question. As an elder statesman of his art, there is a feeling that it's his right. Yet it's always fascinating. "I look at others," he continues. "And I like to look inside myself. I'm not an idiot, not an optimistic idiot either. Sometimes I'm pessimistic, but I think all of these things are part of life, and when you open the door you can see passing by some of this life and you can see a smile, or you can see sad people."
The fact is that when one thinks of Depardieu one thinks of his smile. He is the consummate loveable rogue. His devil-may-care attitude is infectious. On screen he is a cavalier, his characters have muscle and fight. Nonetheless, he posits that the passion shown by his characters isn't something that has driven him on in his rollercoaster career: "I have no ambition. I'm curious about others. I'm an actor and for me it is an opportunity to meet people, and one of the advantages of my profession is that I get into contact with many people. For example, if I were to play a physician, I would get into contact with other physicians, I would get into a hospital and into an operating theatre and I could even do an operation. I've always wanted to use this opportunity all my life."
When he talks about his restaurant and vineyard he speaks with passion rather than clarity, yet his enthusiasm shines through: "It's not work, it's a part of my life. I have a restaurant so I take care of the restaurant and of the people who come to the restaurant. When you have a restaurant, to make good food you have to take care of the food, you have to know everything about the meat, fish and the bird, how they grew up and who took care of them and that makes you alive and it also puts you in communication with people who share the same passions.
"This is a luxury. Luxury isn't to sleep on a Louis Vuitton bed. If you have the idea that luxury means to have 10 people around you like movie stars, with a bodyguard, this is nothing. When you are alone, when you have good things, this is luxury, and this is what I tried to do." He also admits that he's happy making films in Europe and no longer wants to rush off and do the occasional job in Hollywood as with Ridley Scott's 1492. "Hollywood has done some good things," he says. "But you know with Hollywood movies I have done everything, but I refused more than I did. When I moved there, they are like the ghost of the movie. They have wonderful actors, but it's so hard to work in Hollywood, because the work is like a nightmare. It's like Kafka's last communist country."