NEW YORK — If Gerard Depardieu is not yet a household name among film-goers, he will be by the end of the year.
By then, four films starring the popular French actor will be released in the United States. In "Menage," Bertrand Blier's black comedy which opened at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills Friday, he plays a hulking homosexual; a tough cop in Maurice Pialat's "Police" (opening at the Fine Arts, also in Beverly Hills, on Nov. 5), a shy paleontologist in Daniel Vigne's "One Woman or Two" and an early 20th-Century peasant in Claude Berri's "Jean de Florette."
Having made about 60 films by the age of 37, Depardieu is considered more a phenomenon than a performer in his native France.
"Making so many films is my way to be an author," he says. "I do my job without pretensions--a good worker of the spectacle. What I like is the relationship between the director and the actor. What's beautiful is making a film on jealousy, hate. . . . The possibility of language is what interests me."
His language was understood in the United States, as the National Society of Film Critics voted him the best actor of 1983 for his performances in both Daniel Vigne's "Return of Martin Guerre" and Andrzej Wajda's "Danton." The award acknowledged what French audiences have known for more than a decade: Depardieu is the premier European actor of his generation.
With his husky physique and street-wise tone, Depardieu introduced a new masculine image on the French screen. This leather-jacketed, wise-cracking, beefy but sensitive prankster seemed like an adolescent running headlong into adulthood. Yet his acting range has proven to be staggering, as demonstrated in such diverse roles as the awkward husband in "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," Robert De Niro's proletarian buddy in Bertolucci's "1900" and the bullying lout of "Going Places."
Whereas his most recent successes on American screens were comedies, the two films just shown at the New York Film Festival have a darker and grittier tone. "Police" is film noir --a detective thriller--while "Menage" follows the exploits of a bizarre trio: Depardieu is Bob, a robber who leads a couple (Miou Miou and Michel Blanc) into crime, wealth and a rather lopsided menage a trois, where the two men fall in love with each other.
Depardieu--who starred in three of Blier's films, including "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," explains that he wanted "to go on working with him. His personal touch is scandalous, on the dangerous side. I felt very close to my character: Bob and I can both be terrifying," he admits with a smile.
To the suggestion that "Menage" might be disturbing or even shocking, especially to women, the actor replies, "Yes, some fragile women can run from it. I think Bob is a very feminine character--in the worst sense. He's like a lost child whose dreams have been stolen. Most movies about homosexuals are haunted with the notion of a psychological crackup. But not 'Menage.' On the contrary, it's full of life and pretty healthy."
Not everyone will find this film's musical beds and flesh-peddling "healthy," but Depardieu believes that "Bertrand Blier is an extraordinary madman of human nature. Bob is a demonic, of course, but that's reality. Bob is part of my wandering: I was a member of all those crazy gangs. I'm a traveler. Now and then, you meet really weird people!"
Depardieu met numerous denizens of the underworld in his adolescence, having dropped out of school at the age of 12. But his rather violent existence was softened when he discovered the theater. "I was on-stage at 15," he recalled, "and I found my voice through others." (He later found his singing voice through his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he has recorded a few albums.)
The theater is still his passion, and it was while he was shooting "Menage" that he performed for 5,000 people nightly in a musical with the French singing star Barbara. "It was a new kind of show," he says excitedly, "and then we took it on tour to 40 cities in France and Italy."
The accelerated pace of Depardieu's life feeds into "Police," where he plays Mangin, an impatient, obsessive and fast-talking detective who is trying to net a ring of drug dealers. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the young girlfriend of the ringleader.
"I hadn't read the script when we began shooting," he recalls, "and on the first day, Pialat handed me 14 pages. It was an interrogation scene, so I simply read the lines." Depardieu lowers his eyes to an imaginary page and barked, "What's your name?" to illustrate his acting method in the film's opening scene.
"Police" is loosely based on an American detective story. What they retained was merely "a woman of 17 who's a total liar. Mangin knows it's a hopeless love. In fact, he and Bob in 'Menage' resemble each other: They both have the fault of having fallen in love; they're like wounded beasts," he said in evocative French.