Nobody seems to know how many movies Gérard Depardieu, 42, made before his two recent U.S. releases, Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac. When The Boston Globe asked him last year, all he could do was shrug and hazard a guess: ''Seventy-five, peut-être, eighty?'' What is clear is that he bestrides French film like a six-foot-two colossus.
An impoverished provincial vagabond transformed at 16 by a stint at Paris' Théâtre Nationale Populaire, Depardieu wears his dramaturgical learning lightly. Asked about his acting method, he replies, ''I do not think. They want me to kill, I kill. They want me to love, I try to love. I just follow my friend actors.'' He even wears his avoirdupois lightly: Though he reportedly has tipped the scales at 257 pounds, he is not flaccid but solid, bearlike an immovable object.
He's also an irresistible force. Ever since he erupted out of anonymity in Bertrand Blier's roguish Going Places (1974), he has dominated hearts and screens all over Europe. He helped Blier win the 1978 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with the sex comedy Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, and copped the French Oscar, the César, for François Truffaut's last important film, 1980's The Last Metro, with Catherine Deneuve. But although he averaged three movies a year throughout the '80s, he is best known Stateside for a few exquisite historical roles: The peasant rival to Robert De Niro in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1976 epic 1900; the protagonist of Daniel Vigne's 16th-century mystery The Return of Martin Guerre; the doomed revolutionary in Andrzej Wajda's Danton (1983), for which the National Society of Film Critics named him Best Actor; and the heroically stoic farmer in Claude Berri's dazzling Jean de Florette (1986).
The one constant in Depardieu's characters is a volcanic passion. As the sculptor Rodin in 1988's Camille Claudel, he attains with Isabelle Adjani heights of erotomania that would be preposterous if not played with absolute conviction. The same is true of Cyrano, in which he blasts the cobwebs out of Rostand's romantic classic. That and Green Card will demonstrate whether his shaggy Gallic charm can make women swoon on both sides of the Atlantic. As Deneuve once put it, he's one of the few ''who can still take an actress in his arms and carry her away.'' But a word of warning to his leading ladies: Don't try the same move on him.