Why did Shia LaBeouf copy Eric Cantona's 'seagulls' line?

Eric Cantona

Controversial US actor Shia LaBeouf stormed out of a news conference after quoting footballer Eric Cantona's comment about seagulls. Why is this baffling line about sardines so well remembered, asks Tanvi Misra.

A gnomic utterance is defined, in one dictionary, as something that is "short, mysterious, and not easily understood, but often seems wise". That sounds appropriate for the line Manchester United striker Eric Cantona uttered in 1995. "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." It's been endlessly dissected since.

Nearly two decades later, troubled star Shia LaBeouf has pulled a Cantona. At a news conference for Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac on Sunday, he departed abruptly after answering just one question. With Cantona's seagulls line. When the French striker originally said it he was also at a news conference, being quizzed after his arrest for kung-fu kicking a fan. The line prompted mass scratching of heads. Type "Cantona seagulls" into Google and the search engine suggests "quote meaning". But it is a straightforward metaphor, if you think about it, says Jim White, sport columnist at the Daily Telegraph. It implies the "media were just parasites and he (Cantona) was the boat that they were following".

Cantona's reputation as a complicated man and a thinker perhaps led to the significance of the phrase being overstated. After all, it had been constructed by Cantona and a handful of other people in a hotel room shortly before the news conference. The footballer paused in the middle of his delivery to take a sip of water, smiling, because "he knew what was saying would have a serious effect", says White. Then he said nothing else. Like LaBeouf, Cantona had a reputation as a maverick. And he was "unashamedly Gallic in every sense of the word", says Mark Perryman, co-founder of Philosophy Football, a range of clothing decorated with slogans.

The blurry nature of the phrase perhaps added to its gnomic quality, says Julian Baggini, founding editor of the Philosophers' Magazine. "Sometimes when the water is muddy, you think it's deeper than it is," he says.

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