No shame in grieving a celebrity’s death

French actor Gaspard Ulliel was killed in a freak skiing accident earlier this month. PHOTO:...
French actor Gaspard Ulliel was killed in a freak skiing accident earlier this month. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
On January 18, French actor Gaspard Ulliel collided with another skier at La Rosiere in Savoie, France. Ulliel, who was not wearing a helmet, suffered serious brain trauma and died in hospital the following day at the age of 37.

I was lying in bed with insomnia at the time, doom-scrolling through social media at 4am. The harsh glow of the cellphone wasn’t doing anything to help me sleep, but in my defence, my brain wasn’t exactly functioning at full capacity. A fairly innocuous tweet caught my eye: ‘RIP Gaspard Ulliel’. It was so short; I almost scrolled past it. But I didn’t, and my stomach sank.

Gaspard Ulliel was young, beautiful and talented, known for his portrayals of budding cannibal Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising (2007), fashion mogul Yves Saint Laurent in Saint Laurent (2014) and for being the dashing face of Chanel’s fragrance Bleu de Chanel. Most headlines following his untimely death highlighted his upcoming appearance in Disney’s new series Moon Knight (2022). I first encountered him in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, a touching story of a young woman’s search for her soldier fiancee, presumed dead on the battlefields of World War 1. Ulliel’s portrayal of a young man scarred by the atrocities of war was subtle, touching and broke my heart.

I wasn’t alone in my sadness, although my feelings paled in comparison to those who knew him personally, of course. In a statement forVariety, Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux remembered his friend: “Gaspard belonged to this new generation of actors who were making tomorrow’s French cinema. He was equally brilliant and talented. He gave a lot and we’ll always remember him.”

This year is only a few weeks old and yet it has taken so many household names — Meat Loaf, Sydney Poitier, Bob Saget, Louie Anderson, Andre Leon Talley and Peter Bogdanovich, to name a few. There’s an odd, self-conscious feeling that accompanies the sadness one feels over a celebrity’s death — a profound but confusing sense of loss. For many, our childhoods were marked by the works and offerings of these stars. They produced the soundtracks of our youth, or were our first crush. We saw ourselves and others in them. They were chimaeras, a beautiful mix of reality and our own projections.

I was in high school, in the fledgling phases of my French obsession when I discovered Gaspard Ulliel. He was but one man in a rotating cast of beautiful, talented French celebrities whom I worshipped: Alizee, with her bubblegum-pink pop music, Brigitte Bardot, with her otherworldly allure, Julien Dore, Coeur de Pirate (Quebecoise, but she sings in French), Carla Bruni and Audrey Tautou.

I longed to learn French, to sit on the banks of the Seine and delicately eat a croissant while being serenaded by a beautiful French youth in a beret and striped blouse. Of course, when I actually had the privilege of travelling to Paris, I was sorely disappointed. It was grubby, bustling, hot and full of sleazy men who thought nothing of catcalling or casually harassing women in the street. I ate a rubbery slice of cheesy pizza and fended off the advances of drunk middle-aged men. Like Gatsby with his green light, I learned that my idea of something eclipsed the real thing.

Gaspard Ulliel’s death was similarly disconcerting. Celebrities — even as they age, bicker, marry, divorce, bear children and have public breakdowns, seem somewhat immortal and unchanging. They are constants in our lives and minds: always young, always beautiful, always healthy, rendered in HD, surround-sound and overly saturated tabloid pictures. Their death seems unreal and wrong, as if the DVD has frozen or the record has skipped.

And here’s the thing that really gets to me. Gaspard Ulliel’s death hit me hard because in so many of his performances, I saw glimpses of my brother, John. I know what we see on the screen is not reality; I know Ulliel was only ‘‘acting’’ and that he was his own person, quite apart from his cinematic and artistic endeavours. But in his gentle, troubled soldier Manech, I saw my own brother’s mental anguish as he battled his own demons, even if his spectres did not arise from the blood and mud of war. Ulliel’s characteristic scar on his cheek — once described as the ‘‘most famous scar in French cinema’’ — reminded me of John’s scar above his top lip; the remnant of a particularly ferocious toddler who bit my brother viciously on a playdate when both children were only 2 years old. Both Gaspard and John’s scars transformed their faces, especially when lit by a smile.

I can’t help but wonder whether celebrity deaths or other high-profile incidents might act as trigger points for an outpouring of grief over the cumulative stress and pain of the last few years; the fear of contracting a potentially lethal virus, the loss of livelihoods, the general uncertainty and ever-changing circumstances. Perhaps the simple act of grieving for someone one never knew personally is a form of catharsis. There is strength and solidarity in being part of a collective sadness, of reading other people’s tributes and remembrances of those who have passed on, of knowing that one is not alone in feeling mournful and unmoored in the uncertain, constantly-shifting reality of the pandemic.

For now, I will remember that it’s OK to feel sadness for the loss of someone I admired, even from afar. I didn’t know Gaspard Ulliel personally, but I greatly respected his work, and I feel a muted but deep sense of grief for the loss of someone so young, loved, and talented.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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