Stars drop in and out with great frequency at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Clive Owen (no festival movie) flew into town for opening night and ate breakfast with journalists the next morning; Om Puri (West Is West) materialized out of an elevator, and gave me just enough time to squeal, “You’re a great actor,” before vanishing once more. Adrien Brody has been here, and Julianne Moore and Irrfan Khan will be. Gérard Depardieu came to promote his new movie, François Ozon’s campy fashion show Potiche, in which he plays a muted man falling hard for Catherine Deneuve.
A group of us walked into the actor’s hotel room to see the 61 year-old Cyrano sniffing nasal decongestant. His bare toes crinkled toward us, his shirt lay proudly unbuttoned, and he seized his fat belly at times to show he was unashamed. He gave the overall impression that he often gives on screen: a funny-looking, awkward-seeming dude who keeps shocking you with his sheer physical energy, then winning you with loquacity. He often spoke in rambling French, sometimes English, avoiding any recent controversies like his unprompted Juliette Binoche slam and returning over and over to the need to honor cinema of the past.
He valued Ozon, he said, because “he knows the movies, he knows the quality he can give back to France—the identity culturelle in France that we had before with François Truffaut, with Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, with Maurice Pialat.” Depardieu likely knew what he was talking about, having worked with these important directors, save Rivette (though Rivette did cast Depardieu’s son Guillame in The Duchess of Langeais, one of the last films Guillame appeared in before his sudden death). He could have also spoken from experience about Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, and Andrzej Wajda, all essential filmmakers with whom he’s also worked.
French cinema has a habit of recycling its stars, over and over. In the early days, Jean Gabin played the ubiquitous romantic leading older man, Michel Simon the constant fat comedian with a surprising depth of soul; the New Wave offered confused youth Jean-Pierre Léaud. From the moment he appeared as an awkward washing machine salesman in Duras’s 1972 film Nathalie Granger, fidgeting uncontrollably with the depressed thought of an inability to make a sale, Depardieu promised to combine the best of all three. He was a handsome young man who always looked older, a quick, active man free in his unusually large body. Over time he’s proved best at playing men trying to burst out of themselves; think the unsettled actor in Truffaut’s The Last Metro, or the despairing, self-bullshitting businessman in Resnais’s Mon Oncle D’Amerique.
I had to ask how he learned to use his body so well. He replied that he valued the subtle body language of American actors Jack Nicholson, John Malkovich, and 1900 co-star Robert De Niro, but that he needed to practice moving as well as study movement. Any physical situation could be gotten used to, he said: “It’s exactly as on the stage. When you go in the theater, you sit in your seat and you see the opening. And usually the actor speaks very loud—’How, how are you this morning!’ And after five minutes everything seems normal, you know? And for the body it’s exactly the same…After you forget your body, your body can help you.”
In Potiche’s case, his body helps keep him in place as a block-like union man who doesn’t dare try too hard this time for longtime screen partner Deneuve. (Depardieu offered standard remarks about her getting better with age.) He’s gotten used to the body that’s swelled over the past several years, nourished by drink from his long-owned winery. “You have to be generous,” he said, grabbing his gut, “Because if I see myself, I will be sad all the time. But I don’t care now.”
A journalist compared good aging actors to good wine, both growing better with age. Depardieu said, “Yes. And also if it’s a bad one, if it grows old, it’s still bad.” Depardieu is a great wine, then (a bit musty and stale, admittedly, but still delicious), that’s been developed by great grapes—not just the filmmakers he’s worked with, but the cinema he’s actively studied.
He grew most loquacious (in French) about the late Claude Chabrol, who cast Depardieu in his last film, Inspector Bellamy. Like friend and fellow New Waver François Truffaut, Depardieu said, Chabrol was a great storyteller, and like Truffaut he was indebted to both Renoir and to Hitchcock. Satyajit Ray figured in too, which related to Méliès’s influence on Scorsese, a much greater cinephile than Spielberg, who was, incidentally, indebted to Truffaut. Depardieu closed by praising Pialat and Paul Thomas Anderson; I couldn’t help comparing his monologue to Leonardo DiCaprio’s gee-whiz discovery of Out of the Past during Shutter Island’s preproduction, and feeling once again confirmed that the French industry cares more about film history, far more, than Hollywood does or will.
But there’s more to life than cinema, and so after the roundtable I took a cab to Abu Dhabi’s Iranian market. The driver dropped me off outside a stone overhang surrounded by flowers. Most of the stands were garden shops, selling green shrubs and clay pots. Eventually they disappeared and the strip of land I was walking on turned into marinas, piers, and larger boat docks, and I came to the end of land while photographing crew ships. Dirt turned into clear water with a sudden drop, separated only by a few tiny stone steps. I stood at the edge for a few seconds, then turned back.
A prayer wail sounded from a location too far away for me to identify, let alone see. I walked to an Iranian restaurant and ate a mixed seafood plate on a couch while men in thobes smoked hookah around me and the TV in front of me showed two people in a desert lip-syncing a love song. I wandered through shops afterward with long rows of white plates and silver- and gold-colored teapots. Men were doing something I couldn’t discern outside with purple bags of fertilizer. I kept stumbling upon beautiful, disorienting images, my last being a large abandoned wooden boat, well-preserved, that someone had left on land.
I rode back to the Emirates Palace to see Egyptian film star Lebleba speak. Omar Sharif was the only other Egyptian actor I could name (and I could only place him in English-language parts), so I was curious to see what the talk could yield. She sat at the front of a small auditorium, a Middle Eastern film critic comfortably opposite her. She seemed nice enough, and looked especially flattered when the interviewer showed baby photos of her. But they were speaking in Arabic, which I can’t understand, and the translation headsets weren’t working. I stayed for about 15 minutes, and finally walked out to have a drink.
The bartender asked if I wanted orange or grapefruit juice, then poured me both. I had spent roughly the same amount of time with Depardieu and with Lebleba, but felt immeasurably more comfortable with the first. It helped that I had seen Depardieu in a more intimate setting, that I knew his movies better, and that my knowledge of French had kept me with him even when he spoke in his original tongue. But I had also felt a closer cultural affinity with him, and could place him as a fellow Westerner if nothing else.
A German filmmaker that I had met the prior day approached me. We were both still orienting ourselves, we agreed, and compared our Abu Dhabi impressions. The beaches were lovely, the gardens bloomed fresh, and inequity loomed large by its absence. We’d noticed darker-skinned people consistently serving lighter-skinned ones at hotels, restaurants, and stores and in taxi cabs, but still didn’t know what a poor person in Abu Dhabi looked like. Homelessness and drugs didn’t seem to exist at all. We agreed that the city CNN has called the richest in the world didn’t yet feel to us like a real one.
Meanwhile, some members of the catering staff cleared the buffet stand near us. I watched them push two chocolate cakes, a cheesecake, and two trays’ worth of sweets into the trash without hesitating. I remembered that I was an American Web writer on a free trip, staying at a free hotel, watching free movies (unlike the paying public), and eating sumptuous free meals—or not, if I so chose. Then I began wondering whether people were divided more by class than by culture; after all, I developed my sense of art and culture based largely on the art and culture my class taught me I could access. Rather than alienate me, the film festival’s lavishness made me realize how comfortable my daily life back home was compared to that of the most of the world. “I’m poor next to an oil mogul,” I thought, “but next to a favela resident, I’m a sultan.” My privileged peer and I looked at one another, and I grew the most aware of my own innate sense of privilege that I think I had ever felt.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.