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Footballing genius, amateur philosopher, now successful movie star: is there nothing Eric Cantona can't do? There is one little thing, says Amelia Gentleman - he's not too good at making sense
It isn't easy to persuade Eric Cantona to speak and when he does, it isn't always easy to make head or tail of what he is saying. When he played for Manchester United, Alex Ferguson used to dismiss requests for interviews, saying with some frustration: "I'm lucky if he speaks to me." On the few occasions he did talk, his comments were thoroughly bemusing. When the world wanted to know why he had chosen to karate-kick an abusive fan in 1995, Cantona offered the following answer: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
His answers now are not much more enlightening. Does he like watching football? "No. I like to stay at home and make cinema in my head." How does he spend his free time? "I try to find different ways of expressing myself. Without that I will die. I am searching for abstract ways of expressing reality, abstract forms that will enlighten my own mystery."
In the mid-1990s, when Cantona was revelling in his image as the philosopher-poet who happened also to play football, a few cynics suggested that his fondness for the enigmatic soundbite was a smart way of disguising his shaky English. But he is just as cryptic in French and, besides, if he is confusing, he claims, it is only because he means to be. This is how Socrates likes to talk, he explains.
"Socrates worked towards making people question themselves. He liked to provoke self-interrogation but wasn't particularly interested in the answers that emerged; he just liked to set off the thought process. Why does one have to give an answer?" he says. "That's clear? No?"
Has he read much philosophy? "I didn't study; I live. You can't study these things - life teaches them to you. You don't find them in a book," he says. Then he adds inexplicably: "I've read a lot of Socrates on page three of the Sun."
In some ways it is reassuring to find that Cantona has lost none of the intellectual exuberance that set him apart from his Manchester United team-mates. In most other ways he has changed profoundly. Six years after his unexpected decision to retire at 31, he has cut himself off from his football past and immersed himself in a new profession entirely.
In France, where Cantona's footballing talents were often overlooked, he has finally been recognised as a serious actor - thanks to his latest film, L'Outremangeur (The Overeater), which became a cult hit this summer. In it he follows Gwyneth Paltrow and Eddie Murphy by donning a fat suit to play Selena, a 25-stone bulimic detective from Marseilles who spends almost all his time preparing and devouring unfeasible quantities of food, before writhing on the floor in paroxysms of self-loathing and vomit.
The plot comes as a sideline to this extra-ordinary display, but revolves around his passion for a young and beautiful murderer who finds him repulsive. Some way through the film, he begins a crash diet and sheds all his weight. Swiftly, the heroine falls in love with him.
Although he has made five other films, until now critics have been sceptical of his acting talents. (In the 1998 comedy Mookie he co-starred with a pet monkey, who was widely heralded as the better actor.) This time reviewers agreed that Cantona's performance carried the film. "He gets inside the skin of a deeply lonely man and manages to make him touching, even profoundly moving," Le Figaro concluded.
He has only broken his customary silence now because negotiations are under way to find an English distributor. Producers want to get the film shown in the UK before the end of the winter, but Cantona is not certain that the dark thriller will appeal to his British fans. "This is quite an elitist film and I'm not sure that every Manchester United fan would like it. It's not an action movie that you might go to to relax," he says (he's much less cryptic when he talks about his film career). "There are a lot of silences in it that penetrate the whole piece. Most people don't go to the cinema to see this kind of thing."
He isn't interested in acting in blockbusters. "I don't want to be in Terminator. I don't want to go to Hollywood. I like making films that I find interesting and intellectually challenging."
Cantona says acting has preserved his sanity. It was his salvation from the alcohol abuse, drug rehab clinics and divorce that have tormented so many of his peers in the years following their departure from the pitch. "If you have only one passion in life - football - and you pursue it to the exclusion of everything else, it becomes very dangerous. When you stop doing this activity it is as though you are dying. The death of that activity is a death in itself," he says.
"Often there are players who have only football as a way of expressing themselves and never develop other interests. And when they no longer play football, they no longer do anything; they no longer exist, or rather they have the sensation of no longer existing. Too many players think that they are eternal."
In acting, Cantona has found a way of channelling energies that might otherwise have been poured into more destructive activities. He claims that acting is not as far removed from playing football as one might think. "Even as a footballer, I was always being creative. I could never have played a defensive role because I would have been forced to destroy the other players' creativity," he says. "In football you have an adversary; in cinema that adversary is yourself. You are constantly battling against your own weaknesses to make a good performance. You can lose in cinema too if you don't put on a good performance."
He believes his acting talents have been helped by his capacity to allow the strength of his emotions to overcome his rational side - the kind of passions he demonstrated with his karate kick. For someone who prides himself on being articulate, this was an unusual way to behave, but Cantona still thinks it was justified. "Sometimes in life one experiences an emotion which is so strong that it is difficult to think, or to reason," he explains. "Sometimes you get submerged by emotion. I think it's very important to express it - which doesn't necessarily mean hitting someone. I am very mistrustful of people who are constantly overintellectualising things. It kills passion. You have to allow yourself to lose control from time to time."
Any rage is now poured into his acting career, and Cantona reveals that he is also in psychoanalysis to help him deal with residual emotional problems. "I feel a need for it. It is a world that fascinates me. It is enjoyable to make things visible which are invisible. The better you understand yourself, the better you can understand other people."
On the stands at Old Trafford, Cantona is mourned in a way that Beckham is not; the crowd still chant "Ooh-aah Cantona" with glee. But he doesn't much miss England, pointing out that the extremes of passions reserved for football stars in our country make life much harder for them. He prefers his reclusive existence in Marseilles. "You get greater anonymity here. I'm proud of what I achieved there, but a life built on memories is not much of a life."
The only time he gets anything like that adulation now is when he steps out as player-manager of France's barefoot beach football team (which made it to the European finals a few weeks ago, but lost). But he stresses that recent reports that he might be ready to return to mainstream football as a coach are nonsense.
"I might have said that," he concedes. "But on the whole I talk a lot of rubbish."