'The Bare Necessity' ('Perdrix'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Not perfect, yet easy to love.

Swann Arlaud ('Bloody Milk'), Maud Wyler and Fanny Ardant headline Erwan Le Duc's debut feature, which premiered as part of Directors' Fortnight.

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix), French sports journalist and filmmaker Erwan Le Duc’s first feature, is a quirky meditation on the nature of love. How quirky, you ask? Well, this contemporary, self-styled comédie amoureuse — or amorous comedy, as opposed to a simply romantic one — features World War II-era tanks and Nazis, a lifetime's worth of journaling contained in a crateful of notebooks and revolutionary nudists that are wont to steal your clothes, if they are not too busy reading those diaries, of course.

The kind of proposition for which the term “acquired taste” was most likely invented, the pic will require specialized marketing beyond Franco-friendly shores for any type of theatrical release, though festival audiences that like their films odd and engaging will eat this up. The unusual mix of deadpan comedy and heartfelt romance should also further consolidate the reputation for versatility of lead actor Swann Arlaud, after his star-making turn in Bloody Milk, which premiered in the 2017 Critics’ Week and was a drama with fascinating thriller and genre notes.

Here, Arlaud plays Pierre Perdrix, a police captain in a sleepy village in the wooded northeastern Vosges region. His life is extremely organized and predictable, with everything ostensibly set in stone. It quickly emerges that perhaps this wasn’t entirely by design, as he’s the seemingly only sane person that can keep his oddball family together. After the death of his father, Pierre’s mother (Fanny Ardant) has started sleeping around with all the men she could find even though, ironically, she is the host of a radio show called Love Is Real. Pierre and his older brother, Juju (Nicolaus Maury), the latter an earthworms expert, are practically its only listeners and take turns each evening calling in with questions.

The unusual clan is completed by little Marion (Patience Munchenbach), Juju’s preteen daughter. She isn’t all that impressed with her dad’s extensive earthworm knowledge but otherwise seems relatively well-adjusted.

The family’s well-established routine, which includes having dinner every night with their late father/husband looking on from a colorful portrait on the wall, comes undone after the arrival of the conspicuously named Juliette (Maud Wyler). She’s a young woman whose orange car, with a crate full of journals she’s been keeping since she was a child aboard, was stolen by a female nudist. (This is actually the film’s first sequence, and it’s a glorious moment of deadpan WTF-ery.) At the police station, Juliette makes it clear she isn’t sure she agrees 100 percent with Pierre’s policework there. She shows up at the police captain’s home not much later and basically invites herself into the family and especially Pierre’s life, whether they’ve asked for it or not. 

The entire early going is a deadpan affair that suggests just how boring and forgotten the little Vosges village they call home is. Even the existence of “revolutionary nudism” in the area — which involves a bunch of locals who are after people’s clothes in a bid to purify them both inside and out — doesn’t seem to faze Pierre; it’s just another one of those things you accept as being part of nature. And the news that Juliette doesn’t really know her parents and, through some paperwork, officially “emancipated from them” at age 16 initially doesn’t seem to leave much of an impression, either, even if, at least for audiences, it is a clear clue that this young lady has a mind of her own. One slight hiccup: Juliette says she doesn’t believe in love, whereas Pierre loved to read Novalis as a youngster, one of the most prominent Romantic poets, hinting at a more sentimental man underneath the stone-faced policier.

Le Duc intertwines the comedy and the romance in an unusual way, in the sense that a lot of the comedy isn’t necessarily part of the film’s romantic core, which is why the hilarious recreation of a Nazi-era battle managed to end up amid the more amorous antics. Perhaps it is also why the director felt comédie amoureuse — another possible translation would be “comedy in love” — was a better description of this peculiar genre hybrid, in which love just happens to bloom against a comedy backdrop.

That said, there are other forms of love the film explores, too, including the love of a parent for their offspring. The various transitions aren’t always smooth, however, as when the pic cuts back several times to a hollow in the woods in which Juju and his daughter have become trapped. It is clear from a narrative point of view that the two need to talk to each other, but it takes them (and Le Duc) a while to get there. But because the setup is so obvious, it feels like they are dawdling there before they get to the point, which slows the story’s forward momentum. 

Arlaud, who earlier played a cute supporting role in the 2010 romantic comedy Romantics Anonymous, here impresses in a more full-bodied comedic and romantic turn, and Wyler, who has starred in several of Le Duc’s shorts, is his perfect foil. By the time they get involved in a crazy cat-and-mouse game involving a car and a bike and one very steep mountain, audiences will be solidly rooting for them to finally crash into each other — though preferably without their means of transportation.

Ardant, though undoubtedly the biggest name in the cast, especially abroad, is in only a handful of scenes, but her sadness over her husband’s death does hover over the entire family in a way that explains not only her own behavior but that of the entire family configuration. In a lovely observed touch, she is the only relative who doesn’t end up with literal bruises by the end of the film because her pain is all on the inside.

Alexandre Steiger, who also co-stars in the Directors’ Fortnight title Alice and the Mayor, has a fun supporting role as a colleague of Pierre’s who can’t help but still be in love with his boss; refreshingly, Le Duc, unlike many other French screenwriters, handles this one-sided homosexual desire with respect even within a clearly comedic context. 

The craft contributions, on what have must been a tight budget, are generally impressive, with cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine, production designer Astrid Tonnellier and costume designer Julie Miel clearly enjoying the opportunity to make a genre film in a region that isn’t seen all that often onscreen. 

Production company: Domino Films
Cast: Swann Arlaud, Maud Wyler, Fanny Ardant, Nicolas Maury, Patience Munchenbach, Alexandre Steiger
Writer-director: Erwan Le Duc
Producers: Stephanie Bermann, Alexis Dulguerian
Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designer: Astrid Tonnellier
Costume designer: Julie Miel
Editor: Julie Dupre
Music: Julie Roue
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Playtime

In French
99 minutes