Gérard Depardieu is regarded as a symbol of France, and rightly so. It was deeply symbolic that he featured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s classical film 1900 along with Robert De Niro. Both of them were quite young in those days, both were to become a genuine embodiment of their generation, both fulfilled themselves as symbols of their respective countries – equally talented, charismatic, with a great scope of mastery ranging from comedy to drama. Both are endowed with a mystery of a smile – warm, playful, and unforgettable. Both are able to create a role using no text, simply with their eyes and body language.
But both turned out to be rather difficult characters. Once while watching a cable TV program in the USA of a meeting of students and faculty with Robert De Niro at the New School for Social Research in New York that was hosted by James Lipton, I found myself thinking about how discomforting and uneasy it must be for De Niro to be interviewed. Instead of a volatile and unpredictable character masterfully created by one of the greatest film actors in the post-Brando era, I saw a bored and tired person with almost no powers of speech.
Nearly the same applies to Depardieu when he is caught outside his magic spell as an actor. As conventional wisdom teaches us, it is better not to know how a sausage is made if you happen to be a meat eater, or it is better to keep away from behind the scenes of democratic decision making if you are a confessed democrat. This is more than true with regard to the new and honourable citizen of Russia, Monsieur Gérard Depardieu. In fact, sometimes it is better not to know everything about an object of one's fascination. A seemingly innocent episode of mundane life may destroy the whole play of our fantasies about the noble-mindedness of the cultural elite.
What was Depardieu’s choice of new citizenship all about? Was it slap in the face to his country or rather to Monsieur le Président François Hollande for looking down on an angry, bitter, and insulted icon of French cinema? Sweet revenge against a government that sought 75% in taxes from a hard-working and talented, albeit prosperous and nonchalant, star? Self-indulgence of a celebrity accustomed to be approached by the head of state anxious to make it up to the incarnation of the French spirit of liberty and generosity, un homme qui rit?
Conversely: Was it Russia’s political middle finger extended at France, its old adversary and object of admiration? A public “f*** you” to President François Hollande who reminded everyone once again of the truth that the scrupulous and pedantic French Left has always been far more difficult and annoying for the Kremlin than the pragmatic and all-forgiving French Right with its realpolitik? Those who doubt this should compare the Kremlin’s attitude to President François Mitterrand after the 1981 crisis between the former Soviet Union and France and his successor President Jacques Chirac who swiftly became a sweet chum, a true buddy to Vladimir Putin despite all of his former anti-Soviet fervour and right-wing linguistic trappings.
Upon a closer look, it appears that the farce with Depardieu’s citizenship was merely a show for the naïve. True, it was a gain for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. That this great French film actor should have accepted a Russian passport and Russian citizenship praising Russia’s “old democracy” up to the skies and insinuating a certain take on the political opposition was not only a triumph for Vladimir Putin’s cynical PR campaign, but also a blow to French pride, with its symbol taken away and caricatured. No matter his cultural limitations, Putin understood quite well that Depardieu had became a political clown in the eyes of the Russian intelligentsia and his fellow actors in Russia after his buffoonery.
Yet the real reason of this farce lies elsewhere. After a successful Mistral deal, tension between Russia and France rose high after an antimonopoly move undertaken by the European Commission which was first and foremost targeted at the Russian energy-supplying giant Gazprom, a source of fantastic riches for Putin and his entourage. Otherwise, Putin would never have allowed himself to poke fun on what he had long perceived to be a crucial member of the Moscow-Berlin-Paris political axis against NATO and America’s presence in Europe. This axis had been working quite well under the trio of old chums – Putin, Schröder, and Chirac. This fresh slap in the face to France did not signify anything other than retaliation for the shift in a set-up Moscow regarded as its geopolitical success story.
If we are to remember Karl R. Popper’s idea about an early conspiracy theory that he found in Homer’s The Iliad, the essence of the conspiracy lies in our naïve belief that it is we who are waging a war against our foe or fighting to liberate our country or to avenge our allies, while the truth is that somebody else – far more powerful than we are – is using us as a mere tool in waging a war whose logic remains beyond our understanding. This is exactly what happens in The Iliad where a conflict between two camps of Olympian gods turns into a devastating war between the mortals — between the heroes of Greece and Troy over the beautiful Helen.
This is not to say that Monsieur Depardieu is just a puppet in the powerful hands of a certain mystical conspiratorial puppeteer, yet the similarity between ancient Greek mythology and modern politics is far from a fantasy. Poor actors… They are humans. “Some of them are wise and some otherwise,” as the old good art rock music band Genesis would have put it.