So PK is badgering me about this story which appeared in The Daily Mail - to the effect that legendary French actor Gérard Depardieu routinely knocks off fourteen bottles of wine a day, plus extras: in effect, champagne for breakfast and elevenses, followed by some red wine, then more champagne along with a couple of anisettes to ring the changes, more wine at lunch, some beer in the afternoon, a few more anisettes, some more wine - red, or maybe rosé - and, to round off the day, spirits - whisky, vodka, perhaps both. 'I can't drink like a normal person,' he claimed litotically in an interview with So Film, adding that the way to handle things if they get a bit out of order is: 'A ten-minute nap and voilà, a slurp of rosé wine and I feel as fresh as a daisy.'
This, not long after a recent in-flight toilet catastrophe, in the course of which M. Depardieu peed over the floor of an Air France plane, unable to keep everything in for the fifteen minutes during which the toilets were locked for takeoff. 'Je veux pisser, je veux pisser,' he was reported to cry out in his distress. It took two hours to clean the plane up.
'All right,' PK says in what he imagines to be a persuasive tone, 'why don't you try the Depardieu routine for a day? Just to see what it's like?'
'What? Fourteen bottles?'
'It would be interesting, wouldn't it?'
I know I am the de facto crash test dummy for Sediment, but even I can see that this suggestion is ludicrous.
'It's ludicrous,' I say.
'What if you just had fourteen glasses instead of bottles?'
'Then I'd be pissed, that's all.'
PK gives me a look of sorrowing reproach, but I mean, really. In fact, the more I think about Depardieu's claims, the more I reckon they must be intended not as a genuine lifestyle statement, but as satire. Yes, Gérard's a big lad in all directions, and has survived heart surgery and a motorbike crash (he was drunk at the time), and is as tough as pavement gum, but this much booze would kill anyone, if not on day one, at least by day seven, even Depardieu.
No, it looks more like a semi-calculated insult directed at the French, whose society he has spurned on account of not wanting to pay the income tax. Now a citizen of lawless, hard-drinking Russia, he is free to have as many snorts as he likes and critique what he deems to be prissy French moderation. Because that's one of those French conundrums: for a nation which is supposed to consume quite a lot, the French don't actually drink that much, or if they do, they don't drink it that fast. When we were sponging off our French friends and acquaintances last summer, the wine was certainly there, as were all the tiresome apéros and sometimes the digestifs, but with nothing like the profligacy I associate with eating and drinking in England. I don't think I'm betraying any secrets if I say that when someone has a meal at our house it's an excuse for a) a tonne of fatty food b) litres of drink to dissolve it. And I am not alone.
But in France they are more civilised, and make their drinks last, to the extent that one bottle of wine was deemed enough for five people - five - on one occasion. (I would also note, parenthetically and ungraciously, that our hostess on this occasion was also a rabidly assertive Parisienne who assured us that not only was it impossible to get decent bread outside Paris - we were in Provence at the time - but that the British were the mauvais élèves, her words, of the EU, with our subsidy-grabbing and rule-flouting, and that we should quit at once and leave the project to the original six. Oh, and her daughter swore blind, having looked it up on her smartphone, that only 0.1% of the French working population was employed by the state. Seriously).
Everywhere you turn, in fact, the French appear to be consuming less, drinking mineral water at their desks, not even loading up on brandies and calavados in the deep countryside before starting half a day's highly-subsidised labour, not even there. It wasn't that long ago - no more than a few years - that I was in a fantastic old-school restaurant on the Rive Gauche, where a party of middle-aged blokes, they must have been profs from the Sorbonne - tweed coats, specs, frizzy grey hair, noisy abstractions - did stupendous justice to a three-hour weekday lunch, and were still doing justice to it as I left. But no more, it seems, or possibly yes, more, if you're a university don, but otherwise, no.
At any rate, I take it to be this new dispensation which Depardieu is attacking with his surreal claim about fourteen bottles. And in this sense, I am behind him all the way. If France is not emblematic of indulgence, of highly-refined excess, what is it emblematic of? What's its point? There would be no point to France, apart from the scenery. Non! Depardieu's on-the-face-of-it insane boast is actually a lament, a sublimated threnody for a vanishing culture. It is an intervention, a plea on behalf of us all, for the soul of his native land, delivered by a 180-kilo alcoholic millionaire who nearly shorted out an Air France jet with his own pee. Salut!