With the latest edition of the French Film Festival UK returning to cinemas this month - alongside a healthy virtual programme after the success of last year - it's time to dive into some of this year's new offerings. In an ideal world I'd manage to watch and carefully review them all but, in this world in which I find myself, I can only do my best. I've already written about some of my most anticipated films, and spoken with festival director Richard Mowe about what he thinks, but one film that could fly under the radar is Constance Meyer's debut feature, Robust (Robuste), which is currently doing the festival circuit and is due for release in France next year.
This may be controversial, thanks to the continued drama surrounding Gérard Depardieu, but this is very much Meyer's film - alongside her other lead, the revelatory Deborah Lukumuena. I wasn't familiar with either before watching the film, as this is Meyer's first feature after four acclaimed shorts, and one of Lukumuena's first major roles after appearing in four other films of her own, but I was impressed. If there's one thing I can say about this year's festival - and perhaps the French film market in general - it's definitely the time for women to shine. There are so many great female directors in competition this year, along with a diverse variety of female leads to complement them. I hope to see this trend continue and to see it reflected in future instalments of the festival.
With Robust, Meyer (who also wrote the film with Marcia Romano) tackles the life of an aging actor, who is known for being difficult. The film opens with Georges (Depardieu) riding his scooter home drunk and having a minor accident along the way. His regular security guard, Lalou (Steve Tientcheu) - who is more of a personal assistant than a bodyguard - is there to pick up the pieces, and tells him that he will be going away for a while. Sound familiar yet? To be fair, there are a number of jokes at Depardieu's expense, and one of the funniest comes just moments after this when Georges asks Lalou if he'll be flying Air France. The answer is no, which pleases Georges because he hates them.
Before Lalou departs, he tries to introduce Georges to his replacement, but the stubborn actor slips away and misses the chance to meet Aissa before she takes over. The next morning she turns up for work at Georges' place, and there's some confusion as he first mistakes her for a man. In the time leading up to their first meeting, the audience has slowly been getting to know Aissa through snippets and glimpses of her daily life. Outside of being a security guard, she is a talented wrestler (the real kind, not the rock 'n' roll variety) with a promising future. She trains, works, and competes, but still finds time for family, friends, and the convenience of a casual relationship with one of her colleagues.
Despite his initial reluctance to trust a woman, Georges comes to depend on Aissa - possibly more than he does on Lalou - and the two form an unlikely bond as they start to learn from each other. For Aissa, that journey is more about learning what she really wants from life - especially as she observes Georges' loneliness and despair - but it's also about the practical ways she can apply those discoveries as part of her new role. As her passion for actual wrestling seems to fade, we see her love of coaching come through - first in the way she handles Georges' meltdowns, and applies techniques she's learned from her own coach, then in a more direct way as she starts to help with training the next generation. It's a complete journey, but also the start of something much bigger.
Georges is also on a journey of sorts, where Aissa functions as both a mirror and a guide - showing him things he may not want to acknowledge about himself, but also being his companion along the way. In one early scene, Georges introduces Aissa to his exotic anglerfish, which come from the bottom of the ocean and thrive in complete darkness. She refers to them as deformed, and he responds by saying, "Deformed, maybe, but beautiful." That sentiment is followed up in a scene soon after when Aissa meets her mother and sister (Aby) for lunch. They discuss her wrestling training and Aby says, "It's ugly, deforms the body." It struck me right away, as we're presented with the beauty of both Aissa and the anglerfish, which not everyone can appreciate, yet somehow Georges does.
Although it might seem easy to anticipate the direction this story will take, I don't want to spoil it. This is a snapshot in time - a vignette of life as it's lived - where people come and go, and pass through. There's a lot of clever words and imagery at play - along with a well-curated soundtrack that combines David Babin's haunting score with Michel Berger's 1981 classic, Quelques mots d'amour (A Few Words of Love) - but things aren't just resolved or tied up with a neat bow. You see people start to change, and you wish the best for them, but there are no guarantees - the story plays out as you choose to imagine it. For Georges it all comes down to one moment, as the lines from his latest role come back to haunt him, and the revelation hits.
“My soul, once so tranquil ... My hands, which worked with dignity ... What has becoe of them? So here I am, vanquished, timid and enslaved, like a child. Like a shipwrecked unbeliever, drifting on an icy sea. Here I am, like an orphan, wandering from dawn until evening, waylaid by the storm, buffeted by the wind. Lord, help me. What has become of me? Tell me who I am. I want to dig the earth and lie there forever."
Those words stay with me - as does Depardieu's delivery of them, in all his brokenness. Taken as a whole, Robust is a powerful film that leaves you thinking, which is the same experience I had with Depardieu's last film, Home Front (Des Hommes), earlier in the year. In that, director Lucas Belvaux painted a confronting portrait of veterans who were still coming to grips with their scars and memories from the Algerian War. If this current generation of directors continue to ask those kind of questions, and enlist the older and well-known actors to tell their stories, then I am all for it. In the meantime, I look forward to Constance Meyer's next feature, and to Deborah Lukumuena's subsequent films.