Page 14, 3rd June 2011

3rd June 2011
Page 14
Page 14, 3rd June 2011 — Depardieu: the worn out easy rider

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Locations: Cannes


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Depardieu: the worn out easy rider

LM EVIEW atthew ink Mammuth

CERT 15, 92 MINS Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, the French television comedians and film directors, made their names with a popular Spitting Image-style daily satire show named Groland. Groland is the name of the fictionalised country – an acidic, caricatured version of France – which serves as the altered latex state for Delépine, Kervern and their team to play out their ribald Guignol jokes and take potshots at dominant figures in French popular culture and politics. You can imagine what sort of mauling Dominique Strauss-Kahn is getting at the moment.

Together, these practisers of modern art brut look like two members of Pedro Almodóvar’s source gene pool – dark shades, cigarettes, silvery hair and grizzled, unshaven features. Their television success has led them logically to a film career, still in its relative infancy, which transposes their anarchic, Rabelaisian humour on to small-scale filmic narratives about marginalised everyday folk encountering extraordinary situations. One of their films, the blackly comic crime story LouiseMichel, was released in Britain as recently as March this year and also played to a positive reception at the last London Film Festival.

Their most recent film, Mammuth, an immediate cult success in France and released in Britain this week, stars Gérard Depardieu as a sexagenarian slaughterhouse worker who, upon entering retirement, discovers that he needs documentation from his previous employers to secure his state pension. Depardieu’s character, Serge, then sets out on a cross-country search on a mythical German motorbike – the Münch Mammoth – which, along with the bulky Serge’s prehistoric disposition regarding relationships and contemporary law, lends the film its title. Along his search, which is at turns surreal, grotesque, and sometimes deeply moving, Serge undergoes that process of self-discovery characteristic of the road movie genre. The provincial France that we see is largely a sterile, post-industrial wasteland of temporary office blocks, shabby business parks, empty fields, motorway service stations and other non-places. The characters he meets are rendered automata by the daily grind and resigned to their lot. This bare background, though, allows the force of Depardieu’s Serge to cut through: he is a brusque yet bighearted brute, with a big voice and a big personality, who operates in the direct, blunt mode. But he is as much of a rumbling anachronism as his motorbike.

Serge, the point appears to be, is emblematic of a certain generation which is cast adrift by changing tides within France and ill-equipped to deal with the needless bureaucratic intrica cies and technologies of state-run administration, and ill-prepared to deal with the world outside of the closed spaces of the slaughterhouse and his home. He is essentially now dead meat himself. In this sense, the film becomes a paean to the gradual dissolution of the working class and its cultures, something the melancholic void of the countryside silently screams as Serge rolls cumbersomely by.

Serge is accompanied for some of his journey by the ghost of his first love, played by oval-faced Isabelle Adjani. Her character’s reappearance catalyses Serge’s youthful second wind and also serves to remind us of the cinematic context in which Delépine and Kervern apparently seek to operate; Adjani’s is a very Bufiuelian apparition; a touchpoint for the directors would no doubt be Luis Bufiuel’s 1969 film The Milky Way, a road movie about a different type of self-discovery replete with surreal vignettes and sharp parody. Elsewhere one is reminded of the road movies of the Finn Aki Kaurismäki, whose films find great favour in France (he recently received glowing reviews for his latest film, Le Havre, in competition at Cannes) and whose work shares the same sourpuss humour and bleak worldview. Nominated for a Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, Mammuth’s curious affectations and minor key interests are successfully offset by Depardieu’s performance, which reveals him to be a force of nature once more: a warm, humanist hulk of a man. Shot in reversible Super 16mm for a budget of only two million euros, the film has a 1970s and documentarian feel which serves to further underscore the obsolete nature of the principal protagonist, and gives the film a mournful nostalgic quality.

This film will not be to everyone’s tastes – sometimes the odd humour is particularly black and tart – but it certainly deserves an audience in Britain, and it is another promising picture from two film-makers who continue to work in a tusk-like upward curve.

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