In a huge, 18th-century house in the centre of Paris, Gérard Depardieu, France's greatest film star, lives a strange, perilous life, wreathed in tales of indulgence and excess.
For more than 40 years, since he first arrived in the city as a penniless vagabond from the provinces, Depardieu has shown a remarkable talent for both acting and wrapping the French public around his saucisson-sized fingers.
His wild ways and monstrous appetites for booze, feuding and scandal have made him into a peculiarly French hero.
Many here see him as a kind of one-man version of The Three Musketeers – a raffish, cavalier throwback to a more romantic age – but the country's seemingly limitless capacity for forgiveness now faces its sternest test.
In late August, it was revealed that a 22-year-old aspiring actress had accused Depardieu, 69, of rape and sexual assault. According to a police report, the woman – the daughter of a friend of Depardieu's – had gone alone to his 20-room house in the Saint-Germain district of Paris, apparently to be coached for an upcoming theatre role.
She claims that on two separate occasions, a week apart, he assaulted her. A fortnight later she told her mother, who called the police.
The actor is now the subject of an enquête judiciaire – a preliminary investigation by a judge, who will decide whether he should face charges.
Depardieu is saying nothing. At least in public. As the news broke he was continuing his familiar, chaotic progression through life, first in Algeria, where he has caused outrage by playing a controversial 19th-century ruler, then in North Korea, where he made a bizarre cameo appearance at dictator Kim Jong-un's celebrations of 70 years of statehood.
At an office across town, his high-profile lawyer, Hervé Temime, who has represented fugitive film director Roman Polanski and a host of other star names, tells me that Depardieu is "incontestably innocent" and hints that the actor may bring a counter-action for defamation.
"No one who knows Gérard believes he would do anything like this," he says. "I am certain he will be cleared, but it is wrong that all this has deliberately been made public, and that needs to be addressed."
Likened by former co-star Robert de Niro to a rogue truck in a demolition derby, Depardieu has left a trail of carnage along a career path that now stretches over 180 films.
The product of a troubled upbringing, he has done jail time for auto theft, grave robbing, had at least 18 motorcycle accidents and been thrown off a plane for urinating in the aisle, and his claim to drink 10-plus bottles of wine a day sounds implausible only to those who haven't seen him in action.
Yet his friends acknowledge a more reflective, even feminine side to the roughhouse persona. "Throughout my life it has been women who have helped me the most, and taught me everything I know," he once told me in an interview.
He spoke of his admiration for female writers including Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin and Colette, and claimed: "I have stayed friends with every woman I have ever been in love with."
In this context, the allegation of rape has caused real shock – particularly at a time when France is still arguing furiously over its response to the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal.
To many, the case in effect puts the country itself on trial. Few other places in the world have been so resistant to the rise of the #MeToo phenomenon, with both men and women fearing that France's long-cherished culture of sexual freedom is under attack from an alien form of puritanism.
There have been heated debates between rival feminist factions over whether the new rules of engagement empower or infantilise women.
A now well-known open letter penned by the imperishable French screen siren, Catherine Deneuve, and signed by more than 100 other prominent French women attacked #MeToo as an expression of "totalitarian prudishness", which, by stigmatising men and treating simple flirting as harassment, was making relations between the sexes worse.
"There has been a legitimate awakening about the sexual violence women are subjected to," wrote the authors, "particularly in their professional lives, where some men abuse their power. This was necessary. But what was supposed to liberate has now been turned on its head: we are being told what we can properly say and what we must stay silent about – and women who refuse to fall into line are labelled traitors. Just like in the witch-hunt days, what we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to the defenceless prey of wicked male chauvinists."
None of which means that France doesn't have a problem. Marlène Schiappa, the outspoken 35-year-old Minister for Gender Equality, calls France "a paradise for sexual predators", with a whole range of cultural and legal impediments ranged against women who seek to complain about their treatment.
In September she introduced a new law, theoretically banning everything from wolf-whistling in the street to "marital intimidation", although critics, including opposition politicians and jurists, have called it unworkable and "pure spin".
At this point it would be tempting to see Depardieu's case as France's long-delayed #MeToo moment, but so far things are following a predictable course.
The cultural elite has largely rallied around the star, coverage in newspapers and TV networks has been relatively muted, and movie fan sites deluged with messages of support.
Within hours of the allegations becoming known, Dominique Besnehard, one of the country's best known show business agents, publicly accused the young complainant of lying.
"When are these young actresses going to stop making things up to get themselves noticed?" he fumed. "We all know Gérard. He's a larger-than-life character, but he's gentle. In my day wannabe actresses went to drama school, not some star's house to accuse them of doing bad things."
Actress Sandrine Kiberlain, jury president this year of the prestigious Deauville American Film Festival, also weighed in, calling Depardieu "the most brilliant, funny, awesome man I know. What are they saying? That he's a pervert?"
Over a flute of Champagne at the Paris Ritz, author and broadcaster Anne-Elisabeth Moutet – one of the signatories to the Deneuve letter – says the French have come to love Depardieu as much for his flaws as his bravura screen performances.
"He's this big, lumbering, oafish, dingbat-crazy character who also happens to be a total genius," she says. "I remember once being at a party in Cannes and seeing him standing in a flowerbed in a torrential rainstorm, dressed in his evening suit, screaming to the heavens that he loved his [then] wife Elisabeth, and you couldn't help but love him back. To us he's a kind of living national monument, and the idea of him doing something seriously bad actually hurts us."
No one doubts that if Depardieu ends up in the dock, the debate over the country's attitude to sexual abuse will be powerfully reignited.
"It's a complicated issue for us," says Anne-Elisabeth. "Unlike, say, the US, where things get painted in black or white, France is a country of grey areas. Those of us who signed the letter were attacked for supposedly betraying women, but our point is that you can't reduce something as complex as human relationships to a hashtag.
"We agree that rape is a serious crime and that sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has to be stamped out, but the idea that women are these poor, helpless little beings who will be traumatised for life if some bloke makes a pass at them in a bar is just insulting."
Depardieu's relationship with France is, itself, complex.
He has frequently threatened to leave – on one occasion telephoning former president François Hollande to deliver a furious harangue about his tax bill before declaring, "Vive la France, I'm off."
He decamped to Russia, where he was given honorary citizenship, but despite similar tantrums over the years, has always returned. It isn't hard to see why, for his story could have been written by Victor Hugo.
Born into a poor family in Châteauroux, a dreary town in central France where his father swept floors in a factory, he ran away from home aged 12 and was taken in by a pair of ageing prostitutes who plied their trade at a US army base outside town.
For the next few years he drifted from place to place, hustling, stealing and scheming, not always successfully, to avoid the law.
At 16 he arrived in Paris, "big, ugly, broke, functionally illiterate, but otherwise okay," as he puts it in his autobiography. He had one friend in the capital who turned out to be studying at a drama school, and suggested Gérard came along, too.
After impressing in small stage and film parts, he broke through playing a small-time hoodlum in Les Valseuses, a 1974 crime drama that won rave reviews.
By this time he was married to Elisabeth Guignot, a schoolteacher's daughter, whom he had met at the theatre school. They had two children, and collaborated in several films, including the internationally acclaimed Jean de Florette, but separated after 20 years.
A series of other romances followed, notably with Carole Bouquet, his co-star in the 1990 epic, Cyrano de Bergerac. For the last 14 years, he has been linked to Clémentine Igou, a rarely seen 41-year-old Harvard University graduate who appears to spend much of her time running a wine estate in Italy.
There are few signs of life at the Paris mansion. Depardieu tried to sell the place for a reported $80 million five years ago, after announcing his move to Russia, but later relented and kept it as his main base.
At the bistro across the street, regulars say he used to enjoy riding his motorbike through the gates, challenging the paparazzi to chase him, but gave up after crashing and failing a breath test.
The strains of advancing age and hard living seem not to bother or constrain him.
His fans, though, have worried for years that one day he would have to pay a price for the life he leads, and a judge may now have to decide what it is.
- FamilyArt and Matilda Green open up about becoming parents and why they're keeping it real on social media
Good Health ChoicesToday 8:00am
- MindDo you have FOBO? Why the fear of better options could be fuel for anxiety
Good Health ChoicesToday 12:00pm
- FamilyA mum's worst nightmare: 'I saw my son floating lifeless'
Woman's DayToday 10:00am
- MindDiane Keaton opens up about her heartache over her brother's mental health struggles in new book
New Zealand Woman's WeeklyYesterday 11:30am
- RoyalsPrince Harry teases an upcoming collaboration with Jon Bon Jovi via an amusing text conversation
Now To LoveYesterday 10:30am
- Career20 career tips that will make 2020 your best year at work ever
- RoyalsThe Royal Family's birthday message to Prince Andrew has been met with controversy
Now To LoveFeb 20, 2020
- RoyalsDuchess Meghan and Prince Harry have confirmed more details about their future
Now To LoveFeb 20, 2020
- Real LifeThe 2011 Christchurch earthquake struck the day after my birthday and changed my life forever
New Zealand Woman's WeeklyFeb 20, 2020
- CompetitionsWin a brilliant Banana Boat prize pack worth $100!
Good Health ChoicesFeb 20, 2020