Life’s singular comings and goings have been interpreted in more ways than you can imagine on film, and Mammuth, a French black comedy film directed by the young but talented Gustave Kervern and Benoit Delepine (Louise-Michel, Aaltra), addresses this issue not by highlighting the crassness of youth or by accentuating the present moment in time, but by re-evaluating the after party that is retirement… when you look no older than Iggy Pop (who it seems never shall). Having been nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and three at the 2011 Cesar awards, it excels on account of its ideas and those behind them.
Played by legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu, the film’s central character Serge Pilardosse enters the pensioner’s life after an unsurprisingly underwhelming surprise party from his job as a slaughterhouse worker. In order to start collecting his retirement fund he must find and collect the documents that validate the missing seconds of his long, uninterrupted working life. Thus to embark on this most important of road trips he unsheathes his old Münch Mammuth, all the while haunted by the memories of the first love whose fate is tied to the eponymous motorcycle.
In describing the character of Serge, one of the film’s minor characters gives the best description: lame. Not in the sense that he’s disappointing in any way from an entertainment perspective, but in the attitude with which he’s spent his adult life and how he plans to spend his senior years it’s a perfect summation of his attitude, demeanour and plan of action. The very fact he is attempting to gain these missing pension papers from jobs (such as a bouncer or carnie) that would never even bother with health care, highlights an idiocy of which there is no overcoming, but merely an acceptance.
It is a brilliant comedy, though it has the essence of drama that, whilst sometimes misleading, ties together the many singular moments of hilarity. Unfortunately to highlight some of the best of these is difficult, given how the most hilarious moments draw wit from an abundance of carefully placed punch lines and seemingly irrelevant set-ups. Furthermore few of the jokes rely on jocular outburst; whilst sometimes bleak, raw and sometimes very disturbing everything is kept subdued and with heavy deadpan for the full running time. The ending is perhaps one of the greatest you’ll see in a funny film: the expected final philosophical development of the character is turned on its head and used in a way that empowers, yet somehow even more so undermines him entirely.
Of course much of this straight faced approach is thanks in part to the superb cast, with Depardieu’s perfect rendering of the previously explained inadequate nature of the protagonist as pitifully sluggish and rewardingly anti-climactic. In picking out his supporting cast the two stand-outs are his until-it-concerns-her apathetic wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau) and hippy in overdrive niece Solange (Miss Ming), both of which symbolise lives left behind that must be reclaimed – whilst inhibiting the same uselessness as their husband and uncle respectively. Together they all help to provide what is the antithesis of the coming of age movie; more the ‘it’s a bit late for that now don’t you think?’ film, which just doesn’t sound as snappy.
Mammuth is arguably the most uplifting dark comedy I’ve ever come across, helped in part by the delightful guitar track used in conjunction with the many wonderfully filmed scenes of Depardieu riding the antiquated bike. It’s relation to the hippy movement is very much evoked by the style of filming, and whilst you may need to get through the early scenes to really understand what the film’s trying to get at, by the end you’ll wonder why you ever doubted French cinema could ever be this funny.
Words > Graham Ashton