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

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The first foreign language film that I saw at the cinema was probably Jean de Florette (1986). This was before the Stella Artois adverts made a cliché of flat-capped peasants winding their way home over cobbled streets in the blue dusk, with Verdi’s hummable melancholy tune playing in the background. Four years later came Cyrano de Bergerac (1990 - subtitled by Anthony Burgess no less), and Gerard Depardieu was now so big, so accomplished, that nothing remained but to conquer the world. And so we have Green Card released in the same year, and later Ridley Scott’s underrated 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). Although this move into English language cinema and Hollywood stalled, Depardieu, despite being for many people the epitome of French film, has always stretched into other languages and cinemas. He speaks fluent Italian, and one of his early stand-out roles was in Bernardo Bertolucci’s gargantuan epic 1900 (1976), where he plays opposite Robert de Niro. This is just one of a whole slew of international European productions on his CV.

That said, Depardieu is 'French Cinema'. He has occupied many of the iconic roles: Cyrano is perhaps chief among them, but he has also been two musketeers, D’Artegnan and Porthos; he has played the artist Rodin in Camille Claudel (1988), the writers Honarè de Balzac and Alexander Dumas, and has interpreted major roles of French literature such as Valjean in Les Misérables (2000) and Toussaint Maheu in Germinal (1993). As well as working with Bertolucci, Depardieu has been directed by Francois Truffaut, Alain Rennias and Betrand Blier, and yet always seems willing to work with up-and-coming directors such as Jean-Francois Richet, whose Mesrine (2008) featured Depardieu in a scene-stealing cameo. The man is Obelix, for crying out loud. Although there was a time in the nineties where it seemed that Daniel Auteuil - Depardieu’s co-star in Jean de Florette and perhaps his closest rival as the face of French cinema - was contractually obliged to appear in every French film made, Auteuil has managed to mark up only a piffling 88 credits on IMDB compared to Depardieu’s 187.

Depardieu is simply a giant, a hulking giant. His bigness, even now, doesn’t strike me as fatness. Depardieu isn’t fat the way Marlon Brando was, or Ricky Tomlinson is. This is because he was always big and always a character actor, rather than a sex symbol (incidentally, the latter is a reference back to Brando, not Tomlinson). Perhaps part of this comes from a middle-class romanticizing of the French. If Gérard Depardieu spoke English with a Brummy or Scouse, rather than a Gallic, accent, we might well think of him as a porker - a slob. But his heft seems so evidently to come from fine wines, gateaux and heaps of froi gras, rather than bags of chips and meat pies, and so we can’t help but find it charmant.

This could be why Mammuth fails to convince. Serge Pilardosse is supposed to be just fat. The children, who find him sleeping in the bus stop and phone their parents, describe him as fat and smelly. And yet even in the title we are pointed in the direction of an analogy with a lumbering giant, dignified but doomed, shuffling his way, gently and quietly towards extinction. This seems to refer more to the closing of Depardieu’s career than Serge’s retirement, because - rather like Marley’s ghost - this great actor drags so many of his past along with him. At the beginning, we see Serge carrying a slaughtered pig and it set me thinking of the pig that Olmo slaughters in the extended version of 1900. Serge’s niece points at his nose, saying it’s the kind to root out truffles, and of course immediately the shadow of Cyrano’s larger proboscis falls.

The structure of the film as a surreal road movie, recalls Les Valseuses (1974), Depardieu’s first collaboration with Betrand Blier. In this film, the title of which can be translated as balls (as in testicles) and not Going Places - the rather tame English language title - two young misogynist ruffians (Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere) range through France stealing, killing and having sex. Despite its deplorable sexual politics, there was a footloose anarchic swagger, not only to the characters, but to the film itself. Here the surreal encounters added a verve to proceedings, a sense that anything could happen, ultimately remaking the thuggish protagonists into wide-eyed innocents. Les Valseuses is a young film, still high on the fumes of the 60s, and yet Betrand Blier is still going strong, with his most recent film The Clink of Ice (2010) debuting at Venice last year and applying a similar narrative freedom and imagination to somewhat grimmer subject matter. Patrick Dewaere didn’t fare so well, committing suicide at the age of thirty five.

Serge’s road movie discovers not only a France where he no longer belongs, but also one which never truly accepted him. The long-suffering and long-haired Odysseus eats from the cheap menu, shares his dining room with a bunch of lonely desperate men (who all burst out crying in response to over-hearing a telephone call taken by one of their dining companions), and encounters a variety of crackpot cameos. The singing grave-digger he first meets gives us a taste of what’s to come: a jollity that jars with its morbid context. Not so much bitter-sweet, as bitter-bitter-sweet. Serge is confronted by unnecessary aggression and hostility wherever he goes. The bouncer of a former workplace has a go at him, a prostitute steals all his money, he even gets harassed at the supermarket before he leaves. His funniest encounter is with a beach-comber who rails at him for not having a method and triumphs in finding the pennies which Serge has missed.

The evidence of his redundancy is obvious in the 3D graphic workshop that has taken over the factory where he used to work. But even the former employer who recognises him, (a vintner which perhaps reminds us of Depardieu’s own renowned love of winemaking) gives Serge an interrogation that humiliates him into admitting that he was and always has been stupid. His stoic resignation is of a piece with his character, but one does wonder why he doesn’t brain the old fogey with his own second-rate bottle of wine.

Probably the weakest point of the movie comes when Serge finds himself stalled at his niece’s house. She is another crackpot (everybody kind of is) and an artist, played by Miss Ming. Her garden is an enchanted grotto of dismembered dolls and overly-busy sculpture. At this point, the road movie is over. There are a few more moments to be had as Serge hangs around, watches his niece go for a job interview, does a bit more beach-combing and even goes to a very arty rave, but the impetus of the film has gone. The quixotic quest is less relinquished than forgotten. Serge will sell his Mammuth and go home on a pathetic mo-ped.

To be generous, this could be a critique of the very idea of dramatic escape, showing that the road movie/damascene revelation is a mirage. This is more explicit in a diverting but aimless episode featuring Serge’s wife, Catherine. Upon hearing that the prostitute has stolen her mobile phone, Catherine recruits her friend, stocks up on body disposal equipment (plastic sheeting, shovel etc.) and, with a hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-robbed-of-her-mobile-phone scowl, sets off to kill the prostitute. After psyching herself up with her friend and driving some way, it is only en route that it dawns on the both of them that they don’t know where the prostitute is, nor how to trace her. It is with bathetic aplomb that they stop the car ready to return home. But this is as cartoonish as Wily Coyote running off a cliff edge and keeping on going until realisation sets in. Similarly, the film, like Catherine and Serge, doesn’t quite know where it’s going, and so returns home; because, when it comes down to it, it has nowhere better to go.

This Alternate Take was published on June 04, 2011.

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