'Saint Amour': Berlin Review

Saint Amour still 1 -Gérard Depardieu, Benoît Poelvoorde - H 2016
Courtesy of Roger Arpajou
Occasionally hilarious but not as touching as it should be.

Gerard Depardieu reteams with his 'Mammuth' directors, Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, for this dramedy co-starring Benoit Poelvoorde and Vincent Lacoste.

It was inevitable that someone would end up one day making a French variation on Sideways, crisscrossing the country from one wine region to the other. But Saint Amour, named after a Burgundy wine, is unlikely to either become an awards magnet film or even be considered a well-behaved dramedy. For those familiar with the gleefully anarchic spirit of writer-directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, whose previous films include Aaltra, Mammuth and Louise-Michel, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. And that familiar spirit is again present here, with Saint Amour reuniting two of the helmers’ regular actors (and Le Grand Soir co-stars) Gerard Depardieu and Benoit Poelvoorde, for their favorite genre: the anything-goes road movie. Willfully childish, surreal, chaotic and occasionally hilarious, the film is entirely of a piece with their oeuvre, even though their latest struggles to be touching as well as funny. In terms of distribution prospects, this should follow in the footsteps of the duo’s previous work.

Jean (Depardieu) and Bruno (Poelvoorde) are a father-and-son team of cattle farmers who are attending an agricultural trade fair in the French capital with what they’ll hope will become a prize bull. But Bruno isn’t remotely interested in farming or agricultural life anymore, instead hanging out with his buddy and fellow alcoholic, Thierry (played by Kervern), in the hall where winemakers from all over France offer free tastings. Perhaps his disinterest has something to do with the fact his mother, and Jean’s wife, recently passed away, though as with much of the material involving the (potential) inner lives of the characters, that’s never quite stated.

The early going was shot at an actual fair, where Bruno and Thierry hope to complete a tour de France of all the wine-growing areas by drinking their way from booth to booth. But these scenes feel largely improvised and are not all that funny, with the timing frequently off a beat or so. (Perhaps better takes weren’t available because it can’t have been easy to shoot with big French stars during a huge event in Paris open to the general public.)

Things start to look up when Jean, a teetotaler since Bruno’s birth, decides that father and son need to go on an actual tour of all of France’s wine-growing regions, which they do with the help of Mike (Vincent Lacoste), a rather peculiar and libidinous 24-year-old taxi driver from Paris. (Thierry isn’t heard of again.) The unlikely road trip that follows is vintage Delepine/Kervern, with crazy ideas and unusual characters following each other in rapid succession. Indeed, it is not surprising that most of their films are in this format, since the road-trip movie is one of the few genres that can make a sketch-like approach to narrative nonetheless feel natural (they also write sketches for French TV and sketches seem to be their forte).

Highlights include a stay at a bed and breakfast run by a snoring provincial (author-philosopher and Near Death Experience star Michel Houellebecq, originally slated to play Mike); a meeting with a clueless waitress (Solene Rigot) at a seafood restaurant who’s worried sick about money — there’s a hilarious punchline involving billions of Euros — and an oversexed realtor (Ovidie, a mono-monikered former porn star) who uses the body of one of the men to get back at a lover.

Most of these scenes work as short stand-alone items, involving any combination of the three leads. But the film doesn’t quite manage to connect these loose elements to the male protagonists’ feelings or any overarching story, with Bruno’s inadequacy with women, for example, more often played for laughs than as a potentially funny symptom of a psychological problem or character trait. Similarly, Mike’s sexual prowess is nothing but a punchline-in-waiting until the trio ends up at a holiday park full of tree houses, where an orange-haired vision called Venus (Celine Sallette, playing a role originally intended for Tilda Swinton), who is suffering from premature menopause, wants to have her last egg impregnated. 

Because Depardieu is only 16 years older than his Belgian colleague, he sports a grey grandfather cut that takes a little while to get used to (just like Meryl Streep’s ‘do in The Devil Wears Prada). And the actor, who notably headlined the directors’ motorbike road-trip movie Mammuth, is entirely in his element, as is Poelvoorde, who is here on his fifth collaboration with the filmmakers. The duo’s innate rapport at least partially makes up for the film’s lack of interest in or occasional awkwardness about the characters’ emotions. Lacoste, well known in France for roles in comedies such as The French Kissers, Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia and Julie Delpy’s recent Lolo, is a good fit as well, with his babyface helping to suggest that the film is something of a look at three generations of Frenchmen grappling with wine, women and strange occurrences.

As in most of their other films, members of the opposite sex are more fantasy objects and/or the butt of jokes than even vaguely recognizable human beings. Actresses such as Ana Girardot, as two preppy twins, one of which is mercilessly vengeful; Chiara Mastroianni, as a roadside pizza seller; and Izia Higelin, as an ex of Mike’s who won the lottery in terms of how many diseases she’s suffering from all at once, all have little personality. In the case of the latter two, they aren’t even featured in scenes that are particularly odd or funny. Sexuality, too, is something that’s used to make fun of more than offer insight, with an intriguing hint about Bruno possibly being bisexual — which might help explain his somewhat ambiguous rapport with women and sex — only used for a cross-dressing joke (as if all bisexuals were cross-dressers). Despite its title, which can be roughly translated as "Saintly Love" as well, the film never quite manages to make any statement about affection and appreciation between the sexes, with the love between a father and his son mainly shining through because of the warm-hearted performances.

The look of Saint Amour is rather pedestrian, with the quality of the material shot on the fly at the agricultural fair actually mediocre. Sebastien Tellier’s score, however, is richly imagined and thus becomes another asset in helping to give the film at least some emotional heft.  

Production companies: JPG Films, No Money Productions, Nexus Factory
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Benoit Poelvoorde, Vincent Lacoste, Celine Sallette, Gustave Kervern, Solene Rigot, Michel Houellebecq, Izia Higelin, Ovidie, Andrea Ferreol, Chiara Mastroianni, Ana Girardot, Mahault Mollaret
Writer-Directors: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Producers: Jean-Pierre Guerin, Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Co-producers: Sylvain Goldberg, Serge De Poucques
Director of photography: Hugues Poulain
Production designer: Madphil
Costume designer: Florence Laforge
Editor: Stephane Elmadjian
Music: Sebastien Tellier
Sales: Le Pacte

No rating, 101 minutes