Eric Cantona stars in two very different films, both released this month. Terry Staunton assesses his performances

Speaking to the Observer Sport Monthly in 2002, Christopher Eccleston lambasted film-makers for casting footballers, claiming it was a novelty practice that took jobs away from “proper” actors. Having recently worked with both Vinnie Jones, in the action movie Gone In 60 Seconds, and – uncomfortably – his own United hero Eric Cantona, in the costume drama Elizabeth, the award-winning thespian’s remarks carried some weight.

Jones and Cantona still dabble in dramatic pursuits today. The former plays inconsequential hard men, but the latter has made some interesting choices, two of which reach UK cinemas this month. Both movies involve more than a smidgen of self-mockery and both reveal a captivating screen presence.

In Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, Cantona appears as a version of himself, summoned by the subconscious of a down-at-heel United-loving Manchester postman, also called Eric, on the verge of a breakdown. Played with formidable subtlety by Steve Evets, Postie Eric pines for the first wife he let go as a young man, while struggling to control the two teenage borderline criminal stepsons his recently awol second wife left him with. He chronicles his woes to a life-size poster of Cantona in his bedroom, until – voilà! – the real thing manifests itself to dispense wisdom and guidance, while sharing spliffs and bottles of wine.

Hallucinatory hero-worship is not especially new to the screen, but whereas Alan Bleasdale’s 1984 TV drama Scully featured a title character seeking spiritual succour from a near mute apparition of Kenny Dalglish, here Cantona sends himself up gloriously with an abundance of cod philosophy. “He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six,” he declares, much to the annoyance of his postman chum, who “still hasn’t gotten over the sardines”.

This being Loach, however, an element of soapbox polemic is never far away, delivered by a character in an FC United shirt berating moguls and Murdoch for putting the game beyond the reach of the working class. But it’s the warmth and banter between the two Erics that resoundingly ripples the net. “Sometimes I forget that you’re just a man,” says Postie Eric, prompting the response: “I am not a man – I am Cantona!”

Eternally celebrated goals are given screen time, the other Eric citing them as moments illustrating the footballer’s genius. Cantona himself nominates a sly pass he made against Sunderland, the underlying message being that it’s the smaller, often unnoticed actions which are the true mark of a man. It’s a tad heavy-handed, close to preachy, even, but it’s an uncharacteristic blip in a film that follows the conventions of grim kitchen-sink drama while infusing them with fantasy and feelgood optimism.

The lessons Postie Eric learns about friendship and the importance of teamwork culminate in an uplifting and hilarious final 20 minutes, which we won’t spoil with any further detail here. Suffice to say that Cantona embodies an eminently likeable screen hero who never takes himself too seriously, yet still exudes more charisma than just about any box office superstar.

In contrast, the sub-Richard Curtis rom-com French Film is cliche-ridden and forgettable, only partially salvaged by another scene-stealing Cantona performance, as self-involved film director Thierry Grimandy. Smug, middle-class caricatures fall in and out of love between visits to the NFT and tedious dinner parties, stumbling through a script that aims for Noel Coward pithiness but settles for Ikea catalogue mundanity.

As a pedlar of utterly pompous cinema, Grimandy is a composite of a several Gallic auteurs, but he’s also a knowing parody of Cantona’s own pretentiousness. He may not have had to travel too far from his real self for either of these films, but even Christopher Eccleston would have to concede that his charm and talent in front of a camera has long transcended novelty.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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