France does not cultivate “national treasures” in the same way the English do.
But if it did, this film would make Gérard Depardieu’s status impregnable – and that of Michel Houellebecq, who contributes another of his extraordinary movie cameos. And writer-directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern might be taken yet further into France’s national heart.
Their new film, in competition at Berlin, features Depardieu (already an established Delépine-Kervern player) as a fleshy farmer seen at one stage stoically, if briefly, shovelling dung. Depardieu is the co-star of this gamey and outrageous road-trip comedy, with as strong a taste as the wine that the characters are habitually knocking back. Like all of Delépine and Kervern’s movies, Saint Amour is broad yet deadpan, with a strange elegance amid the detonations of farce; there are bizarre episodes and contrivances, and some very improbable sexual encounters – and, indeed, non-sexual encounters.
It’s acted with the distinctive physical and facial control that Delépine and Kervern always succeed on imposing on their casts. It’s also very funny – Chiaro Mastroianni as the proprietor of a roadside fast-food van is moderately surreal, and Houellebecq’s appearance as a rackety hotel manager has to be seen to be believed.
Benoît Poelvoorde is Bruno, an ugly, middle-aged, unmarried farmer who lives for the one week a year when he comes up to Paris with his elderly, portly widower dad Jean (Depardieu) to participate in an indoor agricultural trade fair. Their bull is competing for a prize, and is in dignified melancholy contrast to its owners’ ruined masculinity. Bruno also indulges with his mate in a grotesque “national wine tour” of the various stalls associated with France’s wine-growing regions, which are rashly offering free “tasting” glasses to accredited delegates – and he also attempts to flirt, tragically, with the young women present. Of course, Bruno becomes appallingly and belligerently drunk; his pathetic loneliness and self-hate bubbles to the surface and to cheer the poor guy up, Jean offers to take him on a real wine tour of France, beginning with a lunchtime bottle of a wine called Saint Amour. It is to be a much-needed father-son bonding expedition which will need the services of a driver. They engage a local Parisian cabbie, Mike (Vincent Lacoste), a handsome young guy whose tales of sexual success somehow create a toxic gloom infecting all three.
The trio’s absurd quest is a little like Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004) and a little like Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010), but those were about two guys with a crucially high level of irony and self-awareness. Not here. And the third figure in this equation undermines intimacy and ensures that Saint Amour is not about personal growth in any but the most extravagantly silly and farcical sense. The ideas of sex and sexual opportunity hover over everything, and success and failure in this regard are made to look equally strange. Each encounter is like a meeting Alice has in Wonderland.
Our three unlikely heroes end up bringing a young waitress home to their digs, but what she wants is merely to express her fear that France is going bankrupt and to avow her readiness to work for nothing if it would help the national debt.
Bruno, in a flourish of unconvincing braggadocio, later insists on entering an estate agent’s office, claiming to be interested in property, and this results in a sexual episode where the sheer implausibility of Bruno’s good fortune, and his lover’s hidden motives, are all part of the surreal effect. Mike takes the opportunity to visit his former sexual conquests, all of whom have reason to resent his callousness and arrogance. Only Jean, still heartbroken at the loss of his wife, provides any genuinely emotional warmth – poignantly addicted to calling his late wife’s mobile number so he can listen to her voicemail.
Saint Amour is outrageous and highly ridiculous: with their big physical comedy and sight gags Kervern and Delépine are sometimes like Tati without the childlike innocence. What they have instead is a childlike – or childish – air of guilt. Their film is very silly and very funny.
This article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Friday 19th February 2016 16.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010