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For a film that is technically a French take on The Full Monty and Calendar Girls set in rural Normandy — Calvados Girls, anyone? — Normandie nue is surprisingly tame. But an even bigger surprise is the fact that the command of tone of popular writer-director Philippe Le Guay, who directed the hits Service Entrance (aka The Women on the 6th Floor) and Cycling With Moliere, is wobbly throughout, awkwardly oscillating between gritty and glossy and frequently occupying the rather vague middle ground where dire sociopolitical tract and crowd-pleasing comedy supposedly intersect. That said, a sprawling and motley cast that includes everyone from Intouchables star Francois Cluzet to Brit Toby Jones — who plays an American photographer of large nude groups who’s a thinly veiled fictionalization of Spencer Tunick — is at least decent (in all senses of the word; there’s about five seconds of flopping genitals in the whole film).
No doubt based on the strength of the film’s pitch and Le Guay’s previous successes abroad, this item presold to quite a few territories including Australia, all of Mitteleuropa and the Benelux, before its commercial release in France on Jan. 10.
After Intouchables, Cluzet’s most recent big hit with French audiences was 2016’s straightforward drama Irreplaceable, in which he played a country doctor who helps his rural community in more ways than one. In Normandie nue, the genial actor plays a very similar character. He’s now called Georges and he’s a middle-aged dairy farmer as well as the mayor of a sleepy Norman village who is willing to do anything to help out his fellow villagers. In fact, he’s so dedicated to his two jobs that his wife divorced him because he was always working.
Times are difficult in the small town, with plummeting meat prices especially problematic for many of the farmers, who stage a protest to get politicians’ attention for the fact that their livelihoods are at stake. But instead of turning heads in Paris or even just in Rouen, the provincial capital, the protest is improbably noticed only by an American shutterbug, Newman (Jones), who falls in love with one of the village’s meadows and wants to do one of his famous pictures of hundreds of fully undressed people right there. Georges, realizing that regular protesting isn’t working, tries to convince the community that perhaps getting buck naked in front of the lens of a famous photographer might help them get noticed.
The feature, co-written by Le Guay with Victoria Bedos and Olivier Dazat, struggles from the first reel to define the type of story it wants to tell. It opens on Chloe (Pili Groyne, God’s daughter from The Brand New Testament), the young daughter of a Parisian hotshot (Francois-Xavier Demaison) who has moved his family to the countryside. She is given a voiceover even though she’s the offspring of a secondary character and neither she nor her ruminations are present for long stretches. Her childish distaste for her parents’ nudity is played for laughs, but her perspective on the story is otherwise irrelevant. It’s almost a shock when she’s suddenly roped into another subplot and appears to have vaguely articulated grievances aimed at a particular villager for about five seconds before she disappears from view again.
Overall, Le Guay seems to be most interested in the great effort that French farmers need to make to just keep their heads above water, but this problem simply doesn’t exist in Chloe’s family, so making her the narrator is more than a little odd. Some farmers are forced to sell equipment to survive, for example, and one even tries to commit suicide in what’s an inelegant deus ex machina that ends, rather improbably, with a heap of men laughing hysterically about one of their own’s attempt to hang himself and then never speaking of it again. Similarly crass is the use of a TV report on meat consumption’s possible connection to cancer and global warming, which is used as a quick plot twist to turn a situation around but not otherwise explored in terms of what that might actually mean for families who’ve dedicated their lives to putting meat on people’s tables, including their own.
Many of the story strands of this ensemble film struggle to break free from their clichéd setups, including the two neighboring farmers (Philippe Rebbot, Patrick d’Assumcao) who squabble over a piece of land; the madly jealous village butcher (Gregory Gadebois) who doesn’t want his curvaceous wife, Miss Calvados 1997, to disrobe in front of the entire village; and the supposedly careless fling that develops between the sporty son of the late village photographer (Arthur Dupont) and a cute cheese-factory worker (Julie-Ann Roth).
Most of the characters are simply too one-dimensional to really create even one moment of genuine emotion rather than any kind of foreseeable payoff, though Cluzet’s hard-working Georges is at least an affable and relatable central character. Jones’ Newman is an odd creation that the actor never quite sells. Half of his entourage simply disappears a third of the way through, for no apparent reason, while the foreigners’ mastery of the French language varies enormously from scene to scene. Some minor details just ring completely false, such as the supposedly world-famous photographer quaintly exclaiming “It’s wonderful!” when he discovers a Speed Graphic camera — only one of the most popular cameras of the 1950s and 1960s — for what appears to be the first time in his life.
Production design, costumes and camerawork all evoke the Norman countryside convincingly, and there is a certain lived-in quality to the visuals that at least feels authentic. But Le Guay and regular editor Monica Coleman have a hard time balancing the material’s shifting tones and its multitude of often only semi-connected strands. The film’s awkward mix of doomsday message about the current state of French farming and the supposedly empowering message of body positivity and owning your nudity for a good cause never quite takes, like a mayonnaise whipped up with eggs that have been on a supermarket shelf for too long.
Given that a lot of French films have a very relaxed attitude toward onscreen nudity, Normandie nue, which literally means “Normandy Naked,” feels quite prudish, with most of the brief nudity tucked into a couple of extreme wide shots. I’m not necessarily advocating for more nudity in all French features but, for a film that’s supposedly selling a body-positive image, it just looks odd that Le Guay is so shy about showing his leads disrobing and enjoying their moment of empowerment. One can only imagine how different the film would have looked had, say, Louis Garrel been cast in one of the main roles.
Production companies: Les Films des Tournelles, SND Films
Cast: Francois Cluzet, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Arthur Dupont, Julie-Ann Roth, Pili Groyne, Toby Jones, Vincent Regan, Colin Bates, Philippe Rebbot, Patrick d’Assumcao, Gregory Gadebois
Director: Philippe Le Guay
Screenplay: Philippe Le Guay, Victoria Bedos, Olivier Dazat
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Director of photography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Editor: Monica Coleman
Music: Bruno Coulais
Casting: Shakyra Dowling, Sarah Teper
In French, English
No rating, 107 minutes
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