'Bodybuilder': Film Review

One strong performance isn't quite enough to save this unevenly plotted and rather muted drama

What if Arnie were your dad?

An aging weightlifter tentatively reconnects with his small-time crook of a son in Bodybuilder, the third directorial effort from French actor Roschdy Zem (The Price of Fame, Days of Glory). Like his earlier ventures behind the camera, Bad Faith and Omar Killed Me (the latter a 2012 Oscar shortlist nominee for Morocco), the film’s style is rather nondescript, pushing the story and the lower working-class characters center stage -- even literally in the case of the title character, an extremely determined gym owner and divorced former champion who’s training for a new geriatric bodybuilding title when his estranged adult son knocks on his door, looking for a hideaway from some nasty thugs.

Though it offers another solid showcase for the talents of Vincent Rottiers (Renoir, Mood Indigo), who plays the son, and a refreshingly non-judgmental look at a milieu largely unexplored in fiction films, the dynamics of the father-son drama are finally too low-key to really make the film stand out in a busy field when it opens locally Oct. 1. Film week-type events, smaller festivals and broadcasters are the likeliest takers offshore.

Petty hustler Antoine (Rottiers), in his early twenties, is forced by his mother (Dominique Reymond) and his more responsible older brother, Fred (Nicolas Duvauchelle), to move from the banlieues of Lyon to Saint Etienne, where his father lives, after getting into trouble because of one of his bush-league schemes to make a quick Euro.

His old man, Vincent (Yolin Francois Gauvin), runs a gym in Saint Etienne, almost an hour south, and very reluctantly agrees to take him in. It’s not so much the fact they haven’t seen each other for years that bothers him but rather that the former bodybuilding champion is so serious about his dietary and training regimen that no one, not even Vincent’s girlfriend, Lea (Marina Fois), is allowed to distract him from his one goal for the next couple of months: winning the top prize in his next tournament.

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Zem is credited for the script alongside screenwriter Julie Peyr, who also co-wrote Anthony Cordier’s Happy Few, which starred not only Zem but also Fois and Duvauchelle, and the two films share a similar sense of character-driven humor that occasionally diffuses the tension. Their screenplay is partially inspired by the Canadian documentary The Bodybuilder and I from Bryan Friedman and both films introduce the viewers to an unknown world through the eyes of an outsider related to one of the protagonists (bodybuilding god Arnold "Arnie" Schwarzenegger is also briefly seen in documentary form, as a fragment of Pumping Iron opens the film).  

Though the reasons for Antoine’s banishment to Saint Etienne are insufficiently credible, Zem and Peyr do manage to suggest something of the unusually stoic and pragmatic relationship between the two men, with Vincent barely apologetic for having missed out on so much of his son’s life and Antoine, who was 15 when he last saw his father, holding no major grudge toward his father. This brave and potentially interesting choice, however, finally turns out to be a handicap because it robs the story of any type of major conflict and there’s not much in its place.

A subplot in which valuables and money are stolen from Vincent’s gym feels contrived and second-hand, and though the few short conversations father and son have about their past ring true, the men are simply too similar to create much drama: When Vincent, with all those pounds of cultivated muscle, hits his son out of frustration and anger, it’s not a scene of violence and rage so much as one of almost perfunctory anger. And the film’s finale is certainly fun but rather discordant in tone, reeking too much of movie wish fulfillment rather than anything remotely plausible.

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Zem’s matter-of-fact approach toward the world of bodybuilding, clearly influenced by the documentaries that inspired him, is more successful, with a restrained observational quality that’s refreshing — even if what's on-screen isn't exactly restrained, as cinematographer Thomas Letellier's workmanlike images reveal mountains of dietary supplements, fridges full of eggs, broccoli and chicken filets, endless training sessions and excessive vanity (a shot of Vincent checking out his own muscles when having sex with Lea). In an impressive scene, of which there should have been more, Vincent eats his meal alone in the kitchen while Lea, with her "smelly" regular dinner, sits in the living room, hoping to find at least a table mate in Antoine, who instead prefers to go outside for a smoke. The scene convincingly suggests how sacrifices are made by more than one person in the family to get one man to win, though Zem struggles to connect this notion to the central father-son relationship.

With his shifty eyes and stark traits, Rottiers has got the market on young, working-class outcasts pretty much cornered in France and is again outstanding here. He’s also got good chemistry with Gauvin, a former world champion who makes his acting debut here and who certainly’s got the physique du role but who occasionally seems to worry more about his dialogue rather than the emotional truth of the scene. On the female side, Fois and Reymond impress in a handful of scenes, as does Caroline Gaume, who plays a female athlete that Antoine might have an eye on, though, almost typically, the subplot that deals with their story is cut short rather abruptly.

Production companies: Hole In One Films, Mars Films, Rhone-Alpes Cinema

Cast: Vincent Rottiers, Yolin Francois Gauvin, Marina Fois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Roschdy Zem, Dominique Reymond, Adel Bencherif, Caroline Gaume

Director: Roschdy Zem

Screenplay: Roschdy Zem, Julie Peyr

Producer: Roschdy Zem

Director of photography: Thomas Letellier

Production designer: Jeremie D. Lignol

Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski

Editor: Monica Coleman

Casting: Mohamed Bel Hamar

Sales: Wild Bunch

 

No rating, 104 minutes

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