Friday, September 30, 2011

A Mammoth Depardieu

Adjani and Depardieu in Mammuth
Directed & written by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern
Starring Gerard Depardieu, Yolande Moreau, Isabelle Adjani, Miss Ming
Released by Olive Films; opened on September 30, 2011

At this point in his storied career, it’s difficult to see Gerard Depardieu onscreen as anyone other than international star Gerard Depardieu. Once a mere burly actor with a bulbous nose, he now has so much girth that he seems to fill the screen from every angle.

That’s what made his performance in Claude Chabrol’s last film, Inspector Bellamy, eye-opening: he brought a welcome world-weariness to the role of a retired detective taking on one last case, and the heaviness of spirit joined that of body to create a memorably pained character.

In Mammuth, Depardieu again assays a role of a retirement-age man. This time, he runs into the bureaucratic machinery that refuses him his pension: he doesn’t have the proper documentation to receive his full pension, so he must go off to find people for whom he worked over the years to collect the missing affidavits that proved his employment.

With long, curly tresses that make him resemble Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and a has-been singer in some popular hair-metal band, Depardieu easily slips into his role as an unassuming, and initially unfeeling, man considered by others as a fool while traveling, although he soon discovers his worth to himself and to others.

The movie, directed by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, is anything but sentimental despite this plot summary. In fact, it’s almost aggressively the opposite as it attempts to place Mammuth (his nickname comes from the motorcycle he rode years ago and rides again) in a world of alienation and isolation, of people whose tunnel vision blinds them to others.

Of course, Mammuth is part of that world, and would probably prefer that others don’t notice him. But this isn’t really explored by the filmmakers, who are too busy trying to create wall-to-wall aimlessness and self-indulgence, vignettes that loudly yell “people are weird!” After all, why should Mammuth try to fit in in such a world, epitomized by a pointless scene in a small restaurant where a heartbroken man on a cell phone who discovers that he’s being dumped begins sobbing, soon joined by Mammuth and two other men, all dinging alone?

As that dining scene shows, the directors have loaded the dice so that nearly every person Mammuth meets or every situation he finds himself in is another example of a society he is apart from. It starts at the beginning, an impromptu retirement party at the factory where Mammuth works: in a cramped room, a supervisor speaks rotely about his years on the job while his fellow workers stand around like zombies, silently eating whatever’s laid out in front of them while he accepts a jigsaw puzzle as a going-away present.

Later, bored at home, Mammuth goes to the supermarket where his wife works, and has difficulty extricating a cart from the lineup outside the store. Inside, he gets into an argument with the man behind the meat counter, which ends with profane insults flying thick and fast. He then goes to checkout in his wife’s cashier line, and she berates him for doing so, saying that she could be fired for checking out a family member’s groceries. To top things off, he tries to squeeze his cart between two cars but gets it stuck, ruining the sides of both vehicles in the process. He finally picks up his bag of groceries and departs.

Piling on absurdities that create a lopsided view of a society to which Mammuth has no discernable ties or cannot deal with (“socially disabled” is how the directors describe Depardieu’s character), the directors throw the kitchen sink into the morass, and the result is a fitfully amusing but dramatically incoherent mess.

That incoherence takes center stage once Mammuth hits the road. Soon he is haunted by the specter of a long-lost love, played by Isabelle Adjani in hysterical mode. The streaked blood on her face shows that she died violently as a young woman (although that Adjani is nearly as old as Depardieu makes no sense: why would the dead woman age?), and she periodically appears only to admonish the people Mammuth runs into.

Moving in fits and starts, the movie crosscuts between Mammuth running into roadblocks looking for his papers (and when he finds some, he stupidly puts the box on the back of his bike, and soon the papers are flying out all over the place) while his brusque but dutiful wife Catherine, who has discovered that he lost his cell phone (which she lent him), begins the arduous journey of tracking him down since she has no idea if he is OK.

More vignettes introduce characters as socially disabled as he, from a man whom Mammuth meets while both are treasure-hunting on a beach, and this competitor gets jealous when Mammuth finds a small bracelet; later, he meets an attractive woman at a local dive, a cripple whom he helps go the bathroom when he goes to her apartment with her…platonically, of course.

Finally, Mammuth visits a cousin he hasn’t seen in decades and meets his young niece Sloange, who strangely calls herself Miss Ming (or maybe not so strangely, since an actress named Miss Ming plays the role, stiffly and unpersuasively). He finds himself coming out of his anti-social shell the more time he spends time with her. But even with his (nameless) cousin and niece, the directors cannot leave well enough alone. When Mammuth and the cousin meet, we see them masturbating each other, apparently leaving off from something they enjoyed doing together as teenagers.

Shooting in picturesque French locations, the directors present a portrait of a country in turmoil and decline, where even the countryside and small towns themselves look rundown due to their proximity to the losers inhabiting them. There are glorious cameos from two of French-speaking cinema’s finest performers (Benoit Poelvoorde as the competitor, Anna Magloulis as the fake cripple), while Yolande Moreau is excellent as Mammuth’s exasperated but loving wife Catherine.

But it’s Depardieu who holds this flimsy movie together by carrying it on his broad shoulders and carrying it, feeble and wobbly, to the finish line.

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