Fists pumping, arms outstretched in a winged pas de deux with a demurely headscarved folk dance partner, French actor Gérard Depardieu heaved his tremendous girth across Russian television screens on Monday, swooping and gliding like a preening bird of prey at a gala dinner hosted by Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.
It was the latest in a string of ever more curious appearances in Russia by Mr Depardieu, who was presented with a Russian passport in January by President Vladimir Putin. Mr Depardieu has pledged to buy a flat and open a restaurant in the country, as well as learn Russian.
On his latest trip east he travelled to the autonomous region of Chechnya, which fought a civil war against Russian federal forces from 1994 to 2001. Mr Kadyrov has been given a relatively free hand by Moscow in exchange for his loyalty.
On Monday the broadcaster NTV showed footage of Mr Depardieu having a dinner the previous night with the Chechen leader, who according to Human Rights Watch is “linked to a grim record of abuse” and to crimes such as torturing opponents and extrajudicial killings. Mr Depardieu spoke of an upcoming movie project he plans in Chechnya with Mr Kadyrov’s help.
“I would really like to shoot a film here and show that it's possible to do that here in Grozny, shoot a great film," Mr Depardieu told NTV on Sunday. “I can't reveal all the details now, but we'll come back here and this is only the beginning.”
Encouraged by a few bear hugs with Mr Kadyrov, Mr Depardieu was filmed dancing the lezginka, Chechnya’s national dance, a skipping, pirouetting ode to a falcon hunt accompanied by frenzied clapping and driving synthesiser music.
Given the accusations levelled against him by human rights groups, Mr Kadyrov has always been keen to enhance his image with appearances alongside western celebrities, such as Seal and Jean Claude Van Damme.
Mr Depardieu first visited Chechnya to celebrate Mr Kadyrov's birthday last year. “We got to know each other well during his first trip. We discussed several projects. I believe that the current trip will also be productive,” Mr Kadyrov said, according to Interfax news agency.
For some, accepting Mr Kadyrov’s reportedly six-figure fees has turned out to be a PR disaster. The American actress Hilary Swank said she fired her manager and donated her fee to charity after an appearance at Mr Kadyrov’s birthday party in October 2011.
Mr Depardieu apparently has no such qualms about accepting patronage from “politically exposed” authoritarians such as Mr Kadyrov. Last year he recorded a duet with Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov.
Mr Depardieu’s love affair with Russia seems to have grown out of a public spat with the socialist government of President François Hollande over a new supertax on France’s wealthiest. In December, Jean-Marc Ayrault, French prime minister, called Mr Depardieu “pathetic” when the actor announced he would become a tax exile.
At the time, Mr Depardieu joked that “Putin has already given me a passport” – which Putin did the following month.