France came belatedly to celebrity culture, but is now making up for it with a vengeance. While the Dominique Strauss-Kahn politico-sexual scandal is still rumbling on in the French courts (after being settled in America), another major fracas involving a different rotund male star in his early 60s has the country and the international media agog. The Gérard Depardieu affair involves not sex but money, its mix of tax policy, shifts in the nature and economy of stardom and anxieties over national identity creating a powerful impact.
From Parisian media storm to state affair
Ostensibly, the scandal was triggered by the Hollande government’s plans to introduce a 75 per cent tax on earnings over €1m (a move subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Council). Last summer, this had already caused Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury group LVMH and the richest man in France, to move to Néchin, a Belgian village just the other side of the border. This earned Arnault a now iconic Libération cover on 10 September 2012 captioned “casse-toi riche con!” (roughly: “push off, you rich arsehole”).
Arnault’s decision provoked widespread debate about the pros and cons of Socialist tax policies, as well as the desirability of a pan-European tax rate, but this was nothing compared to the furore that greeted Depardieu’s decision to emulate the LVMH boss. First came the shock headlines on 11 December, including Libération’s sardonic dubbing of the star as “Le Manneken Fisc”, a pun on Brussels’ famous Manneken Pis and an oblique reminder of Depardieu’s urinary antics on a plane in August 2011. The next day, the French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault went on radio to deplore that for the great star, whom “everybody loves as an artist”, “to move just to the other side of the border is rather pathetic [minable], all this to avoid paying tax.”
One might think Ayrault had a point, but a piqued Depardieu responded with a bizarre open letter to Ayrault containing a mixture of special pleading (“I started working at the age of 14”), patriotism (“my historical films testify to my love for France”), dubious calculations (claiming he paid 85 per cent tax in 2012) and melodramatic accusations against French judicial ‘hounding’, i.e. the imprisonment of his son Guillaume for drug-dealing.
Depardieu’s letter, in turn, triggered a torrent of reactions, among them a letter from actor Philippe Torreton who lambasted Depardieu’s victim posture: “What did you expect? A medal? An honorary César?”.
Surprisingly, though, Torreton emerged as a rare critical voice among a chorus of support – including from fellow actors Isabelle Adjani and Catherine Deneuve, whose positions boil down to indulgence towards the larger-than-life ‘lad from Chateauroux’ and/or a plea for individual freedom. In her letter, Deneuve quotes Voltaire: “I don’t agree with his ideas, but I will fight to the death for his right to express them.”
From a storm in the Parisian media teacup, the scandal has gathered enough force to become, literally, an affair of state – first because Ayrault’s ‘minable’ taunt was widely seen as a political gambit that backfired (Depardieu having supported the defeated right-wing Sarkozy), then, in a new twist, because the star suddenly switched from Belgium to Russia as his chosen place of exile, declaring the country a “great democracy” to the dismay or ridicule of many Russians. He duly received a passport from Vladimir Putin on 5 January.
Somewhat irrelevantly, Brigitte Bardot followed suit by threatening also to become Russian in retaliation for the plan by a Lyons zoo to put down two sick elephants – as then did Mathieu Kassovitz – apparently for ‘artistic’ reasons. (Who is next?) As if all this wasn’t enough, a third layer of debate was added by producer Vincent Maraval’s polemic in Le Monde about stars’ excessive salaries ruining the French film industry.
Depardieu and French stardom in the age of celebrity
Beyond the idiosyncrasies of the eccentric star’s behaviour, the Depardieu affair is symptomatic of important shifts within the culture and economy of French stardom, which has increasingly gone the way of ‘Anglo-Saxon’-style celebrity culture.
Notoriously, the private lives of stars, politicians and other VIPs were for a long time protected in France – enabling, for instance, former President François Mitterrand to raise a second family on tax-payers’ money, a situation known to the media yet kept secret until his death.
This ‘French exception’ has been seriously challenged by the phenomenal expansion of the so-called presse people (gossip press) over the past decade. The private lives of public personalities have become less and less taboo, from the coverage of the murder of actress Marie Trintignant by her partner, the singer Bertrand Cantat, in 2003, and the July 2004 break-up between Adjani and Jean-Michel Jarre, to the recent instances of the Strauss-Kahn saga and topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Depardieu has been fair game for the presse people. His heavy drinking, eating binges, slimming diets, motorbike accidents, liaisons and problems with his extended family have all been featured, especially his relationship with his estranged actor son Guillaume, whose troubled life included delinquency, drugs, jail, accidents, injury and a tragic early death in 2008 at the age of 37.
Even the ultra-secretive Deneuve could do nothing to stop the revelation, in 2002, that she, like Depardieu, had received (and failed to pay tax on) large amounts of cash from the controversial Algerian businessman Rafik Khalifa to appear at a promotional event.
One key aspect of this new cultural economy is that stars can now finance their celebrity though advertising and product sponsorships. In some instances they derive more income from that kind of activity than their films. Press reports, photos at events such as marriages, presence at cocktail parties and so on: their showing up can be paid for in cash, jewellery, handbags, mobile phones and now, it seems, also foreign passports.
The celebrity world is, of course, also global. As Françoise Benhamou put it, “the star-system has forged an international vocabulary, from the Spice Girls to John Grisham, Harry Potter to Brad Pitt, which echoes the declension of brands, from Disney to Vivendi Universal.” In this respect, Depardieu’s decision to leave France for Belgium, then Russia, only follows global logic. Like the business conglomerates that escape national borders (and legislation), Depardieu can take his ‘brand’ anywhere, its Frenchness a component that apparently can be de-territorialised with impunity. Thus, while Maraval’s argument that “French stars are overpaid” and “film budgets are too high” is absolutely correct, it isn’t a core aspect of the Depardieu case, since his acting fees, substantial as they are, make up only a fraction of his fortune.
Since the 1990s, Depardieu has been busy consolidating his assets through a dizzying spectrum of activities: a stab at film directing (Un pont entre deux rives, 1999), some producing and acting on stage and in a staggering number of films (196 in 38 years – an average of more than five a year). But this is small beer compared to his business activities, which range from the picturesque (wine-growing) to the glamorous (Parisian restaurants) to advertising (for, among others, Barilla pasta in France and Italy, and Russia’s Eliseevsky luxury food shop and Sovetsky bank) to more controversial business deals that involve politicians: joining President Jacques Chirac in 1997 for an official French business mission to Romania, shaking Fidel Castro’s hand in Cuba in 1996 to help his oil company, supporting Slovakian president Vladimír Mečiar in 1998 in exchange for €50,000 and more.
He has meanwhile willingly played the celebrity game, giving interviews, appearing on television chat shows, singing with Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistani president Islam Karimov, and promoting his wine in hypermarket catalogues. No wonder the weekly L’Express called him a “bulimic travelling salesman”, one of many eating images that recur in criticism of Depardieu. Première castigated him because “all the roles he played, others didn’t. He gobbled everything up”, an apt metaphor for someone who among other things wrote a cookery book and is famous for playing the obese cartoon Gaul Obélix in the Asterix and Obélix series of comic blockbusters.
If the facts point to a greedy, materially-obsessed megalomaniac, why then were reactions to his tax exile mostly so sympathetic, especially against the backdrop of France’s grim economic climate? The answer lies in the symbolic value of Depardieu’s star persona, in blatant contradiction to the behaviour of the man.
‘Gégé’ as national symbol
In the torrent of media comment, many have rightly insisted on remembering the great actor of Les Valseuses (1974), Le Dernier métro (1980), Jean de Florette (1986) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). They’ve also saluted, as Le Film français did, “the Great Gérard who does not hesitate to take risks”, alternating comic blockbusters with films like André Téchiné’s Les Temps qui changent (2004) and Quand j’étais chanteur (2006), a film by a little known young filmmaker in which he brilliantly plays a has-been singer. As Maraval himself says, “why should Depardieu be the villain since he shot Mammuth  for free so that the film could be made?”
More persuasive than Depardieu’s admirable support for auteur cinema, of course, is the public image of ‘Gégé’ – an affectionate nickname that speaks volumes about the star’s continuing popular following. In a rare symbiosis between real-life origins and film parts, Depardieu emerged in post-May 1968 France as the charismatic, rebellious delinquent of Les Valseuses, a persona he successfully carried through many dramas and comedies for two decades. As a man of the people made good through the cinema, he echoed his illustrious predecessor Jean Gabin, an inheritance he proudly claimed.
And here history repeats itself. Gabin in the 1960s, having become a rich film star, accumulated land in Normandy to create the stud farm of his dreams. When the expropriated farmers took him to court, public opinion ran for the star as erstwhile working-class hero rather than the exploited farmers. A recurring argument in Depardieu’s defence likewise has been that he worked hard for his money (people thinking more of the struggling young actor than the ageing star who receives fat wads of bank notes under the table).
Whether we agree with the writer Marie Darrieussecq (who wrote that “Gégé is a national symbol; we have forgotten many entrepreneurs who are far wealthier. We have forgotten Bernard Arnault. Depardieu is paying symbolically for the sins of others”), or we simply accept the triumph of fantasy over reality, the Depardieu tax exile polemic shows the continuing power of star images. We can deplore the ingratitude of an actor who made his career in a national cinema generously supported by state subsidies but who decamps when asked to pay some of it back; but like the Bordeaux wines in Chinese or British ownership, his identity will remain, for all intents and purposes, French. After all, he is an actor who is more plausible playing a screen Rasputin in the 2011 eponymous film than he could ever be as Mordovia’s minister for culture. What remains to be seen, however, is how plausible he might be playing Dominique Strauss-Kahn if Abel Ferrara’s mooted project comes to fruition.