Ice Cream With Daniel Auteuil, the Greatest French Actor of All Time

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Daniel Auteuil as Andre Bamberski in "In Her Name." In this case, it was the obsessions.
Daniel Auteuil as Andre Bamberski in "In Her Name." In this case, it was the obsessions.Credit: Nachshon Films
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon

Daniel Auteuil paces back and forth on the main street of Ile Saint-Louis. He is looking for a café where he can be interviewed in peace, but his favorite place has been turned into an ice cream parlor. He scrutinizes the hidden corners of Ile Saint-Louis, his blazing eyes filled with restrained fury. With his hat and long coat he looks like a captain on the deck of a ship that’s off course, trying to reassure the crew without concealing from them the gravity of the situation.

But this morning his crew consists solely of an Israeli journalist who is careful about expressing his opinion on the issue, if only because it’s clear that its importance to the interviewee is far more profound than simply the search for a place to sit.

“Things have changed here in my absence,” he mutters, and continues to walk, indifferent to the flashes of cellphone cameras and the questioning look of the servers in the places he examines. “My wife will join us later, she would know where to go,” says the captain, and for a moment his look is full of the same moist softness that is so familiar to French cinephiles.

Auteuil has an apartment here, across the river from the back of Notre Dame, but he doesn’t use it much: Most of the year he actually lives in Corsica. Is it by chance that both of his homes are on islands? He stops short to focus on the question.

“I suppose it’s isn’t by chance,” he says finally. “I first arrived on this island when I went up to Paris, that was in 1969. A cousin of mine, Florence, took me around the city and to Ile Saint-Louis among other places. I liked it immediately. I thought then that it was my way of not deciding whether to live on the right or the left bank.”

What do you think now?

Jury member, actor Daniel Auteuil, waves as he arrives with his wife for the screening of Venus in Fur at the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, May 25, 2013. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

“I think it’s the water, being surrounded by water. I’m Mediterranean, I’ve always felt very Mediterranean. I’m a southerner at heart. When I was looking to buy a house in Corsica, the agent asked me whether the north or the south, and without knowing anything about the difference I immediately told him, the south of course.”

As usual, the line for Berthillon is down the block. Auteuil isn’t interested.

“I buy there sometimes of course, there’s no choice,” he says of the famous ice-cream shop. People here are real local patriots, but I’m not sure I understand the global madness.” The street ends, and we compromise on a hotel lobby — for no obvious reason, but Auteuil doesn’t believe in reasons in any case.

“When people want to do something, and they do it, they tend to give themselves reasons afterward that they consider excellent. But their explanation is excellent only because that’s what they wanted to do in the first place.”

Again there are camera flashes, and it’s easy to guess that tourists around us are reporting to friends in England, Russia or China that they have just seen Daniel Auteuil.

“It used to make me angry,” he says, preempting the question. “But Ile Saint-Louis is very touristy, and some of my films have been shown everywhere, that’s why they recognize me. So it used to annoy me, but now, to be honest, there’s something very reassuring about it. I can’t explain it, but it makes me feel good. Apparently a matter of age.”

Daniel Auteuil was born in 1950 in Algiers, where his opera-singer parents where on tour. He grew up in Avignon, in the south of France. At 19 he went to Paris, hoping to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts, which three times rejected his application. Just when he was about to return home he saw a notice for an American production looking for actor-singers for a musical, no experience or degree necessary. He was one of 10 who were chosen, out of 1,500 candidates who auditioned. That’s how it happened that one of the greatest stars of stage and screen in France never studied acting.

The musical ran for two years, after which he performed in numerous comedies until 1985, when Claude Berri was casting actors for “Jean de Florette.” Auteuil passed the audition, but Berri rejected him because he was too handsome for the role. “On one hand it was flattering, and on the other is was a disaster,” recalls Auteuil. “I knew this film could do a lot for me. So I went home, chopped off my hair crazily, with kitchen shears. I dyed the rest a rust color, according to Marcel Pagnol’s description in the book. I stopped shaving, and after two weeks I knocked on the director’s door.”

“Jean de Florette,” one of the most profitable films in the history of French cinema, brought Auteuil his first Cesar Award and made him a star. Everything changed — few actors can afford an apartment in Ile Saint-Louis, not to mention a villa in Corsica — but in some ways nothing changed.

“The force that motivates me when I approach a film remains the same. I’m still a young provincial who saw the films of Gerard Philipe and dreamed of succeeding in film. My passion still burns with the same intensity. True, many years have passed, the roulette wheel will stop soon and I won’t be able to continue acting. But that only pushes me to work as much as possible now. Besides, they’ll always need a grouchy old man in some small scene.”

One of the results of his desire to do as much as possible is an amazingly long filmography: He has acted in 85 films, almost always as the lead. We are meeting before the Israeli release of his 85th, “In Her Name” (“Kalinka” or “Au nom de ma fille”), directed by Vincent Garenq. Auteuil plays Andre Bamberski, whose long battle to bring his daughter’s murderer to trial stirred emotions in France and Germany in 1985.

“It’s based on a real person and his story. I don’t know why Andre Bamberski wrote a book about the affair and why he agreed to let us do the film, but if I had to guess I would say that it’s so it will still be possible to talk about her, so that all over France, and all over the world, including now in Israel, people will hear her name and at least for a time she’ll live again that way.”

Did you meet Bamberski in order to prepare for the film?

“I met him only once before filming, because I didn’t want to really imitate him. But we met a lot afterward, during a promotion campaign, and it was clear that as far as he’s concerned his daughter is still here, alive. Often he speaks about her in the present tense. I totally understand that. I talk to my mother all the time, for example. I have a need to say ‘Mother’ all the time even though she’s no longer living.”

But Auteuil doesn’t talk only to his deceased mother but to his children too, and taking on the role of a father who lost his daughter under horrifying circumstances is no simple thing. He has three children: Aurore, 34, from his relationship with actress Anne Jousset; Nelly, 23, from his long relationship with actress Emmanuelle Beart. He and his current wife, Aude Ambroggi, a painter and sculptor he met in Corsica, have an 8-year-old boy, Zachary. Auteuil thinks about him before answering.

“I never take materials from my personal life into acting. If I have to cry, I don’t think about something sad that happened to me. And certainly if I have to play a bereaved father, I don’t put my children into building the character. In general, when it comes to a criminal story, I clear out all the horrors and try to focus on a single character trait, which will constitute the thread. In this case, it was clear from the start, it’s the obsession. All the rest must remain abstract.”

There may be actors among my readers to whom this answer is clear; ordinary mortals cannot understand the process by which Auteuil expresses emotions that aren’t his, with such intensity. He’s a model for young actors in France, and from the start more experienced actors, from Catherine Deneuve to Yves Montand, have expressed great admiration for his talent,. All have tried to decipher on the set what Le Monde calls “Auteuil’s Method.”

“I have no method,” says Auteuil, shrugging his shoulders.

Many actors try to live the character they’re about to play, sometimes for months on end.

“If it works for them, great. It wouldn’t work for me. I’ve never tried to be anyone other than myself. In any case, I don’t know how to lie.”

I believe you, although it’s still strange to hear such a declaration from an actor.

“I play other people, that’s my job. Film and reality are different things, it would be perverted to blur the difference between them.”

In 2013 a documentary tried to investigate Auteuil’s method and reached the conclusion that there is no method, simply skill. In the film, Beart describes the mystery well: “I see him at home in the morning, and then I see him at lunchtime on the set. Presumably it’s the same Daniel. Before it doesn’t look at all as though he’s playing a role, and still he’s not the same person. It’s such a minimalistic difference that I’ve given up trying to understand it.”

Even if there is no “Auteuil Method,” he seems to have a central motivating force, which is a strong sense of anxiety about the future. Auteuil is willing to admit that, if only because he’s felt like that for so many years:

“At the age of 18 I had a serious traffic accident, and it gave me a different perspective of life, of the possibility that it will be cut off all at once, for no reason. If, let’s say, my wife isn’t home, and two hours have passed and I hear an ambulance from the window, I phone her immediately.”

That certainly isn’t easy in this period of terror attacks. The film that made you famous, “Jean de Florette,” portrays a pastoral France that would be hard to recognize today.

“True, but it was a lie already then. France was very violent already then. The first attack that shocked us was against the Goldenberg restaurant [in which two terrorists burst into the Jewish restaurant, tossed a hand grenade, fired at the diners and fled, leaving six dead behind] here in the Marais quarter. That was even before ‘Jean de Florette,’ wasn’t it?”

Yes, in 1982.

“And even earlier, don’t forget that my generation grew up in the shadow of attacks by the underground fighting for the liberation of Algeria. I remember going with my class to the movies, and they evacuated us in the middle of the film because of an announcement by the Algerian underground about a concealed bomb. And then there were the stabbing attacks in the streets of Paris against soldiers who came from Algeria on leave.

“Everything is always violent, everywhere. Yesterday I met a Lebanese woman who said to me, what are you complaining about, in Beirut it’s like that all the time. And I assume that in Israel too the danger is always tangible.”

That’s true, although the feeling in the streets is no different from the feeling in the streets of Paris. You’re invited to come visit and see.

“If I’m invited, I’ll be happy to come. It really is the same thing already all over the world. So to your question, how do I live the present period? I try to be aware of the dangers, and at the same time to ignore them. It’s not easy of course. Yesterday there was a program on television about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, and in the middle of the night I woke up for lack of air, I felt I was suffocating, my wife had to wake me up. So I live our time consciously, but subconsciously our time is suffocating me.”

His wife arrives just then. They kiss before she joins the conversation. We talk about Tel Aviv and he suggests that we exchange phone numbers.

“Auteuil’s Method” is based on a huge talent and is motivated by a profound fear of death, but it may also be related to the fact that he is one of the nicest and most generous people you could meet.