The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Mammuth

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Gustave de Kervern & Benoît Delépine
Length 92 mins
Certificate PG / TBA
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

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Trailer.

Serge Pilardosse (Gérard Depardieu) is a man who has worked hard all his life. Upon his retirement, he is at a loss as what to do, despite the gift of a 2000 piece jigsaw from his workmates. He shops aimlessly and fails to do simple jobs around the house. In financial need and prodded by his wife, he sets off on his old motorcycle (the Mammuth of the title) to gather the missing paperwork from ten of his former employers and, in so doing, also lay some ghosts to rest. This is the essentially thin premise for a film which offers some surprising and funny delights, but which ultimately falls between a number of stools placed at ever greater distances.

Stool number one: there is the social realism of its subject matter, telling the story of the unsung lower working class, the man who has drifted from job to job but always done his work honestly and diligently; a man of low-to-no ambition who finds that the world around him has changed into a hostile and aggressive place in which he has no further role to play. Everybody he meets seems intent on being rude. Even his most casual, off-the-cuff pleasantry will set off a pointless argument. Stool number two: the road movie, the plot allowing our protagonist to motor his way from episode to episode, each one more surreal than the next. The road movie, however, gets bogged down, or loses its way - I’m not sure which. Stool number three: a surreal ghost story. There are other stools involving the spirited vandalism of a golf-course, but that would be entering spoiler territory.

As it wobbles precariously on all these stools, the film is also haunted by the ghosts of better movies - some of which are conjured by the impressive baggage that Depardieu brings with him, and some of which come from more recent American ‘indie’ cinema. In fact, with its chinky-chonk (a sort of ah-well-never-mind-upbeat) acoustic soundtrack and episodic whimsy, Kervern and Delèpine’s film brings to mind the ‘quirky’ cinema of bitter-sweet dramadies such as Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009). It also follows in the tracks of what is perhaps a new sub-genre, in which an aging male star and ex-sex-symbol plays an ordinary Joe going through a series of humiliating encounters, before ultimately wrestling (wait for it) some kind of triumph by the final reel. Alexander Payne perhaps began the genre with his Jack Nicholson vehicle About Schmidt (2002), in which the cinematic icon recovers his actorly chops playing the eponymous recent widower and generally confused misanthrope. The Wrestler (2008) offers another obvious source of inspiration, and we are here treated to the sight of Depardieu with his magnificent Liono mane tucked up in a hair net, as well as many Aronofsky-esque over-the-shoulder shots.

The frisson of seeing such former heroes so reduced (Serge sleeps in a bus shelter and is told by a horrified bureaucrat that he has something up his nose) is perhaps that they shed some of their former glory on the ordinary. But this doesn’t work here the way it worked in The Wrestler, where it was consistent with the character as well as with Mickey Rourke. Instead, Mammuth (as Serge is nicknamed after his motorcycle) shouldn’t have the glow of better days because even his better days - a series of dead-end jobs in now bankrupt firms and closed nightclubs - weren’t that good.

Ultimately, there is a jarring effect with the decision to place Serge’s uber-ordinariness within the context of a surreal world of bizarre encounters. Near the opening of the film, Serge discovers an apparently dead body in the supermarket aisle and, after poking it with a baguette, continues with his shopping. Fair enough: a funny and surprising scene. But then hapless Serge is unable to fit his shopping trolley between two cars and jams it in, ultimately abandoning it. The first episode is crazy and unreal (no one else in the supermarket raises the alarm). But the second is just improbable buffoonery. Okay, he’s retired, but why would that mean he doesn’t understand shopping trolleys and car parks? I don’t mind the impossible, it’s the unlikely that irks.

That said, there are some moments of comedy that do genuinely work: the retirement party where the slaughterhouse workers, still in their aprons and hygiene hats, munch on crisps, drowning out the words of the boss and Serge’s cousin. The performances are well done, Depardieu is still a wonderful physical presence, and French cinema stalwart Yolande Moreau as Serge’s po-faced wife provides some nice, broad comic strokes. However, the film simply doesn’t quite reach the levels of comedy or poignancy for which it seeks.

This review was published on May 30, 2011.