Gerard Depardieu and Star Theory in Le Colonel Chabert

Star persona can be divided into two categories, the on-screen image and the off-screen image, which brings a set of expectations and values to the star’s roles. This on-screen image is determined through the characters and choice of roles within films. The film adaptation of the novel, Le Colonel Chabert (Balzac), can be approached in terms of star persona, since it includes two major French film stars of the era, notably Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant. Mcfarlane postulates that ‘The filmmaker bent on ‘faithful’ adaptation must, as a basis for such an enterprise, seek to preserve the major cardinal functions’ (Mcfarlane, 1996:14), yet the star personas of these well known actors can impinge upon the character and thus create a difference between the novelistic conception of character and the filmic conception of character.

The film adaptation, Le Colonel Chabert (Angelo, 1994), was created during the period coined as Heritage Cinema. During this period there was a fashion for Balzac novels and he was the second most adapted author. The subsequent films were close adaptations of his works, rather than modernizations. Balzac was a conservative author, yet adhered closely to ‘la soif d’évasion, le besoin de transcender les réalités quotidiennes’ (Tulard, 1996: 389-394). This assertion of traditional French values would therefore offer a contemporary filmmaker ‘une mine exceptionnelle de sujets forts et, de surcroît, décalés dans le temps’ (Tulard, 1996: 389-394). The director of the film, Yves Angelo, specialised in the adaptation of this genre of novel into costume dramas during the 1980s.

The genre of the Heritage Cinema was based on accessible popular novels of cultural worth. The production values were high in order to reproduce a museum aesthetic and sense of historical authenticity of bourgeoisie life. The mise-en-scène adheres to a ‘conventional filmic narrative style, with the pace and tone of “European art cinema” but without its symbolisms and personal directorial voices’ (Dyer and Vincendeau, 2001:18). The film can thus be regarded as a product, and ‘the film industry accordingly treats them as valuable properties, allocating them high budgets because their generic features offers guarantees of high returns: high quality craft, publicity, marketing tie-ins, stars’ (Vincendeau: 2001:23). These production choices can lead to both losses and gains in the translation of the novel to the screen.

            Le Colonel Chabert remains faithful to the novel in terms of authenticity and portrays the struggle over French identity and France’s place in the world. However, this concept of fidelity to the novel is placed in doubt with the inclusion of stars. The novel projects a French culture and a centrality of French culture, yet Depardieu’s star persona matches the Heritage Cinema’s internationalism. His expression of the French language in his verbal displays as the Colonel enabled his larger-than-life persona to ‘move out of its class context and be exported as simply ‘French’ across his body and persona’ (Vincendeau, 2000:232). The star’s persona enables the reproduction of the era to appeal to our modern sensibility, rendering the novel more accessible to a mass audience. The French national identity of the stars and French language of the novel, enhance the French-ness and prevent the Americanization of the work.

The character of the Colonel Chabert in the novel is the eponymous hero and is regarded as an intertextual character. Myths are used in order to construct the character, since he is portrayed as a Christ-like figure, embodying the idea of returning from the dead. He additionally evokes three characters from Greek mythology, in particular Odysseus, since he has returned in order to reclaim his wife.

The concept of intertextuality is not only inherent in the character, but also within the star, embodying the character, since the star persona enables the audience to have a familiarity with the stars from their previous roles. In the case of Depardieu, he plays the role of Martin Guerre in the film, Le retour de Martin Guerre (Vigne, 1982), a character who has returned to his village, after serving in the army.

As an author, Balzac was interested in human beings, classifying people from different stratus of society. Consequently, the name functions as a semiotic signifier of the self. In the case of the Colonel, his name was previously defined by heroic acts, but now it is defined by the external bureaucratic system. The character is an example of bourgeois capitalism, embodying this new type of status apparatus. His name is important in considering his biographical details ‘and all that David Copperfield kind of crap’ (Salinger, 1951:1). His identity is placed into doubt due to the erasure of his name and of his existence as ‘un fait historique consigné dans les Victoires et Conquêtes’ (Balzac, 1999:64). The texts have the ability to create an identity and a history, rather than reflect a history.

            The axiomatic structure of the novel is portrayed through the dubious connotations of the identity of the Colonel Chabert. His identity is disputed through descriptions which connote his anonymity as ‘l’inconnu, le pauvre homme, l’homme malheureux, le vieillard, le patient, vieux carrick’ (Good, 1969:847). This self-reflexive element problematizes the translation of the novel to screen, since there is a difficulty adapting these important equivocal textual features into images. The novel is related to the reader through direct speech and dialogue, for example ‘Chabert disparut en effet. Le nourrisseur fit faillite et devint cocher de cabriolet. Peut-être, le colonel s’adonna-t-il d’abord à quelque industrie du meme genre. Peut-être, sembable à une pierre lance dans un gouffra, alla-t-il, de cascade en cascade, s’abîmer dans cette boue de hallions qui foisonne à travers les rues de Paris’ (Balzac, 1999:154), which leads to a partial and subjective vision of the protagonist. Balzac undermines the solidarity of the novel, as the poor spelling and the recurrent use of ‘peut-être’ further enhance the dubious nature of the written text.

The film adaptation has the ‘ready-made knowledge’ such as names, ages, and professions of characters, certain details of physical setting’ (Mcfarlane, 1996:14), but is faced with the dilemma of how to depict the self-reflexivity. In the sequence in which Depardieu is describing his story, the camera, which draws away from his body and the chiaroscuro lighting, cast an ambiguous shadow upon the body of Depardieu and on his story. The absence of the body of Depardieu in the battlefield sequences enables the audience to question the truthfulness of his story.  The binary opposition of presence and absence of the star body is important in the representation of the self-reflexivity, but also the prior knowledge of the star’s roles serves to enhance the spectator’s comprehension. Throughout the novel, the notion of identity is an assertion, whereas in the film, identity is presented through Depardieu’s screen persona.

In the film, Le retour de Martin Guerre, the identity of the character played by Depardieu is questioned. He must prove and protest his identity to the judges ofToulouse, as well as to the villagers. The character is ultimately sentenced as ‘le prétendu Martin Guerre’, which is in the same manner in which Chabert is described. The star body of Depardieu is as a consequence ascribed with a dubious identity in the eyes of the spectator.

             The character of the Colonel Chabert in the novel embodies a juxtaposition in his appearances, since he is ‘in different costumes; he appears in a different way in each scene, and these different appearances condition the way he is treated by others’ (Good, 1969:847). The concept of status is reflected through his appearance, he has shifted from a god status of the Napoleonic era to a mortal in the Restoration. His appearance has ghostly and deathly connotations, with ‘le visage, pâle, livide, et en lame de couteau, s’il est permis d’emprunter cette expression vulgaire, semblait mort’ (Balzac, 1999: 60) and is described as having ‘l’ air d’un déterré’ (Balzac: 1999: 51).

            The face of the star is lent to the description of the character, and becomes synonymous with the character. For the success of the film, it is important for the title role to appeal to a wide market, and as ‘Depardieu est le plus connu de la nôtre: on le voit au seul choix des acteurs’ (Andréoli, 1996:13). In the film, the character of Chabert is provided with a greater status through the star body of Depardieu. The description of Chabert cannot coincide with the physicality and sexuality of Depardieu due to his ‘loubard’ image as a ‘departure from the slim and fit ideal…a proletarian identity’ (Vincendeau, 2000: 221). The body of Depardieu achieves camera subjectivity for extended periods of time, without editing and cuts, notably during the sequence in Derville’s office. His body functions as a site of recognition for the audience, providing familiarity within the unfamiliar world in which the novel is set.

During the sequence in Derville’s office, Depardieu is placed between two paintings, highlighting that he is himself a portrait of his inner suffering and is immortalized in pictorial form. The immortalization of the Depardieu figure reinforces a Napoleonic appearance; an image of power and success. The green of the office also represents the imagery of the battlefield and is thus a strong image of masculinity. In the slums where the Colonel resides, there are polar bears in chains, which reflect the repressed masculinity within the character of Depardieu. It functions to offset his mortal status, since he inhabits a deprived area and visualizes his loss of status under the Restoration.

The novel asserts the importance of the physical disfigurements as ‘son crâne est horriblement motile par une cicatrice transversale qui prenait à l’occiput et venait mourir à l’œil droit, en formant partout une grosse saillante’ (Balzac, 1999:62). He is the scarred ghost who has returned from the dead to haunt the present and his former spouse. It is a physical reflection of his inner sufferings, displaying his broken and vulnerable nature. The scar is a passive indication, suggesting that he is not the agent of the novel.

Depardieu’s portrayal of Chabert is not compromised by this physical disfigurement, with the character’s sufferings displayed through the character’s psychological complexity. The film favours the face and the star body of Depardieu. It is suggested that ‘the novels’ characters undergo a simplification process when transferred to the screen, for film is not very successful in dealing either with complex psychological states…nor can it render thought’ (Cartmell, Miller and Whelehan, 1999:6). However, the film adaptation uses flashbacks in order to allow the entry of the spectator into the character’s psyche, whereas the character of Derville is the magnifying glass through which the reader can look at people in the novel.

The flashbacks enable the spectator to witness the juxtaposition between the Colonel’s romantic past and miserable present. They are drenched in successful and powerful imagery of masculinity, such as images of the battlefield and of a sexual conquest of his former wife. This is a maintaining of his star persona, because ‘Depardieu…through his accumulated image from the past, can encompass proletarian-ness and transcend it, through his tragic suffering’ (Vincendeau, 2000:230).

This psychological complexity of the Depardieu portrayal enables the personalisation of the character. It is important to show the star suffering from aspects of the human condition and the proletarian-ness of the body of Depardieu, combining ‘the exceptional with the ordinary, the ideal with the everyday’ (Morin, 1960:19). The audience are then able to empathise, rather than sympathise with the character, which is suggested in the novel.

Between the novel and the film, there is an inconsistency in the endings, which can be attributed to Depardieu’s star persona. In the novel, Chabert is ascribed with a more childish personality; he is attributed ‘avec une crainte de vieillard et d’enfant’ and ‘avec toute la naïveté d’un gamin de Paris’ (Balzac and Good, 1969:854). This childish and naïve disposition is exploited by the Comtesse Ferraud, since she plots against him and he is duped by her. He is struck down by the disease of humanity, renouncing his name, which is ‘comme tant de héros et surtout d’héroïnes balzaciens’ (Andréoli, 1997:255), but which is not plausible of a Depardieu character.

Depardieu conveys a more monstrous and sexually aggressive nature of the character, reinforcing ‘the sexual axis of Depardieu’s comic loubard image’ which ‘involves a play on regression and emasculation, in which his body and performance provide the ‘evidence’ of heterosexual virility’ (Vincendeau, 2000:221). Hence, he appropriates this aspect of his persona in order to enforce a sexually demanding nature to the character, by taking a more aggressive stance towards the Comtesse, demanding two night conjugal visits per week.

Depardieu is the master of his own destiny and fate due to his star persona, whereas the novelistic conception of the character is subject to the role of destiny. He withdraws and is condemned, whereas Depardieu’s character chooses to die in a Hospice for the elderly. The Colonel of the novel is shown to be a shattered and haggard relic, suffering from his loss of identity which is stressed in the line; ‘Pas Chabert! Pas Chabert! Je me nomme Hyacinthe…je ne suis plus un homme, je suis le numéro 164, septième salle’ (Balzac, 1999:163). He can now only recognise himself by his Christian name and define himself by the present and his state of affairs at the time.

Although the line (p.163) is also included within the film, the concept of the character as Depardieu is ‘moins manichéens, moins blanc et noir, mais beaucoup plus enchevêtrés, dans des sentiments contradictoires’ (Andréoli, 1997:349). Depardieu takes the same moral stance as in the novel and is plagued by his loss of status, but he is comforted and able to reminisce. This is suggested in his final flashback of the empty, barren battlefield, which creates an analogy with his past and present state. His death will be recognized as a successful colonel and soldier, rather than the old man that he is in the present.

In the novel, the Comtesse is subject to a ruthless society in which social status is of maximum importance. The Comtesse Ferraud is a former prostitute, who has reversed the gods to mortals structure by Edgar Morin and is now living off of the Colonel’s fortune. Her fear of her downfall leads to the desperation of the place of women in society, highlighting a manipulative, melodramatic and deceitful nature to the female characters.

The novel asserts the Comtesse Ferraud’s ambitions and her intentions, for example ‘Néanmoins elle conçut d’attacher le comte à elle par le plus fort des liens, par la chaîne d’or, et voulut être si riche que sa fortune rendît son second marriage indissoluble, si par hazard le comte Chabert reparaissait encore’ (Balzac, 1999:118), which displays a schematic and clear portrait of the Comtesse. Her manipulative nature is highlighted as ‘elle déjeunait en jouant avec un singe attaché par une chaîne à une espèce de petit Poteau garni de batons en fer’ (Balzac, 1999:120). The monkey is symbolic of colonialism, displaying that she is a controlling character. Nevertheless, this aspect is omitted from the film, which renders her character less frivolous and less decadent.

The updating of sexual politics is prevalent in the film, in relation to the Comtesse Ferraud, played by Fanny Ardant. In the film, the male and female characters are equal with the balance of power shifting due to the modernisation of the context. Ardant is most commonly associated with roles in prestige films, rather than auteur films, reinforcing the prestige nature of the Comtesse Ferraud. However, she is moulded into a more empathetic character, which provides audience identification. She is viewed in juxtaposition to the more aggressive Depardieu portrayal of the Colonel, highlighting her pain and her fear.

The impact of Depardieu’s star persona upon the characters of Fanny Ardant is prevalent in her previous roles, for example in La Femme d’à Côté (Truffaut, 1981) in which Depardieu plays a sexually demanding and aggressive character towards the role of Ardant. The audience once again create a sympathetic link with the Ardant character, who also condemns Depardieu’s role to his death. These archetypal roles of the stars create an intertextual link, conforming to the character in the film of Le Colonel Chabert, but contesting the depiction of the characters in the novel.

            The film adaptation reads the text of Balzac under the spotlight of our contemporary society, which creates and emphasises different meanings of how the spectator interprets the character. The character of the Colonel Chabert becomes a product of the star, no longer belonging to the author, considering that the persona of Depardieu has become the embodiment of the character. In terms of the protagonist, it is argued that ‘the novelist is totally subjected to their whims, he is the instrument of their wills’ (Bazin, 1996:46), but in the terms of cinema, the opposite occurs. The character of the Colonel is subjected to the whims of Depardieu, changing the original conception of the character and permitting the ability of the film to exist as a separate entity.

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