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Friday, October 09, 2009

Red News reviews the film Looking for Eric out on DVD on Monday

(this review first appeared in the summer mag, Red News 159)

I'm always slightly scared when I see Eric Cantona with grey hair, looking old. It was even worse a few years back when he ballooned in weight into a Jan Molby lookalike, I suppose my fear a sign of my own unwelcome mortality, and, on a slightly more absurd level, it just not fair that King Eric was to age just like everyone else; like you and I, like us mortals.

As he says in the film, albeit the trailer clip not lengthened to show he's actually taking the piss out of himself in the whole scene, “I am not a man — I am CANTONA.” That comes after the film's hero, of sorts, a Little Eric who conjures up Big Eric, tells him: “Sometimes I forget that you’re just a man.” I think we all did for a time.

What with the way we elevated him, however great a footballer, onto this surreal plain, where grown straight men would have offered their wives, or in some cases themselves, as thanks for changing the course and destiny of United's history. The catalyst sort of explains it, but he changed a title challenging side into a winning one, and his Je ne sais quoi, and the success two generations of Utd fans had not witnessed until his coming, meant we didn't just sing about him being a Jesus figure on the terraces, but sort of believed it too.

I still maintain he's the greatest player, certainly the greatest individual, fitting into a team, that I've ever seen, and because so much has happened since he left, though of course you don't forget his contribution, and the highest moments, like placing the ball perfectly around Ian Rush's nose to secure the 1996 Double, you do sort of forget to place the dot to dots of all he did whilst at Utd; and though clips of the goals don't punctuate the film, I can't help but get goosebumps when they are shown. I have seen more gifted players, but none as special as he.

I think I'd have recommended the film if it had just shown Eric having a dump, but it's top class entertainment; funny, moving and sort of, as Ken Loach said he wanted as he spoke at one of the Q&A promotions of the film that I attended, manages to poke fun at the art of celebrity, and hero worship for the likes of Cantona but also maintain, without over patronising it, the reverence that United fans, and Manchester felt towards the wayward son it welcomed in late 1992. Eric says he took to the film because it was about solidarity and camaraderie; United, ‘innit.

The crowd at this advance showing was a right bunch of all sorts. From United fans who had got wind of it to bag prized tickets, some fella from India who just got up to ask a question at the end and instead said he and his country simply loved Cantona, to luvvies; an eclectic mix who obviously had taken to Eric not in the way we did, but understood and lauded his genius in a different way. And nobody seemed to disagree with his twatting of Matthew Simmonds when that was mentioned.

Staring back at myself, this character who loved Eric unconditionally whilst his life fell apart and was put back together around United, and its Number 7, it sort of did the job Loach wanted; not making you feel uncomfortable about how much we celebrated him (but the French flags in abundance at one game they showed unlike any hero worship we've had since), but also recognising he was different, he was adored in a different way to anyone since (but not, as with King Denis, before), and though we may enjoy the football as much, with the likes of Ronaldo's contributions, we haven't enjoyed an individual as much. Maybe we never will. The last of the Kings.

In the promotion of the film, Eric (and Loach and company) were asked pretty much the same standard questions each and every time (similarities between Loach and Fergie a dead cert). It was nice that he still had very nice things to say about Manchester, and his time there, and also how much Utd fans still singing about him meant, but I got the feeling, as he powers ahead with the progress of his movie production company with brother Joel, that he's trying to put a bit of distance between then and now, and though not close the door on it completely, make it clear that this is a new chapter and that one ended long ago, for him at least.

I don't feel betrayed. I could go all feminine and say like a tart, “We'll always have 1992-1997”, but it was always going to play out like this. He wasn't like any other footballer, he wasn't going to stand still, certainly not opening a pub, or reminisce each weekend on sky or mutv. He wanted to be great at something else (just not the trumpet, if his playing in the film is anything to go by, though that in itself a homage to his ridiculous ban, the scriptwriter Paul Lafferty being told Eric took it up during his ban and saying: “I just loved this notion, of this genius footballer on the one hand, sitting in his flat by himself, all fingers and thumbs, touching this fucking trumpet!”).

Which is probably why Eric said to Jonathon Ross, and others on that promotion circuit, that the sardines statement was “nothing”, just meant to provoke an outcry from the 'mirror' he had placed in front of the media with the comment. But I don't fall for that. Maybe I'm like a spurned lover, clinging onto the last cherished piece of the relationship, but I do feel he knew exactly what he meant (it makes perfect sense to me, still), but his poking fun at the nothingness of the statement now serves two purposes; putting it to bed at long last so he won't get asked what he meant time and time again, and helping to poke fun at himself as he does in the film itself. His last scene in LFE is a wave back at a United fan as if he is visually closing the chapter in film and life, to move on, so that we can too. But though he's putting some distance between he and his disciples (alright then, stalkers) to concentrate on his new career, typically Eric, he’s still doing it in the nicest way possible.

I'll always have Eric, and though he's grey, and at times fat (aren't we all), I'd gladly switch on parts of this film every day to give me the buzz of back then, my Eric is just like the poster in the film, young, cocky, having just done the business for United. The film gets it right in identifying the craze we had for him. I mean, as regular RN readers will know, I once bagged his underpants and shorts at a beach football tournament and don't think it's entirely odd in any shape or form to still own them. Cherish them, even. I plan to get married in the y-fronts, to bring me luck. If it were any other player I'd think it was nuts behaviour.

For Eric, that level of idolising seems strangely reassuringly right. Ronaldo, though it's a great debate to have, was probably more gifted, and achieved more (though of course Eric set the train in motion), he never had, or never would have had, that utter kinship that Eric had with his fans at Old Trafford. Where we could forgive each other of anything.
He's moved on, and so have we, but though he talked during the pr blitz that he may return to OT as a boss - “I don't know how many years will go by before that happens but on the Manchester United bench my name is already written down”, I just get the feeling that he and we know that will never happen. In a way I suppose I wouldn't want any possible managerial failure to diminish the memories.

The casting is excellent, there's only a couple of scenes that don't work (that pub argument scene seems strangely at odds with itself), and though it's good seeing a couple of well known Reds as extras, the sight of a 20 foot Boylie head on a fans' bus is slightly disconcerting. There's some belting one liners in what is a great script from someone who ‘gets’ us - “I'm fucking up to here with your philosophy. I'm still getting over the sardines one, for chrissakes.” - but it is to Eric once again where we gaze.

Ken Loach said: “What we do as a collective, matters more than what we do as individuals... it's an anti-Thatcherite film” and whilst that's for you to judge, that spirit between mates, of sharing together, as we do at United, watching Eric or whoever, or as they do in the film, with Utd as a backdrop to post office workers helping each other in their lives, is defining and worth reflecting on. His last performance here in a United shirt is once again a great one. It doesn't take the piss, too much, of the way we cherished him, perhaps though we’ll admit it was to extreme levels, but it does sort of describe why we did it. And then it's over, and it's his farewell as King Eric of Manchester United, and with a wave he's gone. So Au Revoir Cantona. It wasn't just fun, it was the best time of our lives.

And I'd still have your children.