Robust (Robuste in the original French) looks like it’s been made explicitly with Gérard Depardieu in mind. Writer/director Constance Meyer insists she that while writing it she had both Depardieu and co-star Déborah Lukumuena in mind. But while Lukumuena does nothing but cover herself in glory, it’s Depardieu who’s the irreplaceable element.
Because? Because it’s about an aged actor who got a bit beyond himself. Georges (Depardieu) is unpredictable, wilful, prone to not turning up on set, prone also to making pronouncements about the state of the world – robust ones, to use the sort of adjective deployed by ageing red-faced males locked in endless combat with the pronoun-sensitive, offence-avoiding wokerati.
It’s tempting, more than tempting, to equate the character of Georges with that of Depardieu himself. If it is, it’s both an apology and an explanation, that the drunken, fat, boorish, bed-hopping, tax-dodging, meat-eating, Putin-loving (later regretted), nationality-switching French-Belgian-Saransk-UAE citizen is also a misunderstood soul, a decent guy underneath all the negative publicity. In this film Georges is conspicuously kind to children and animals.
To the plot, which can be summed up thus: Georges, a notorious flight risk when it comes to movies, is assigned a new bodyguard/minder, Aïssa (Lukumuena), a young woman who is a wrestler in her spare time. She is at first a little put out to discover that her job is more babysitting than bodyguarding, and he’s a little put out that his old minder, Lalou (Steve Tientchu), has been replaced. Lalou knew Georges’s foibles – the late night panic attacks and palpitations, the relentless insecurity, the rages, the drinking, the women.
It’s an odd couple movie in other words – the old, white male fearful of the end of life staring him in the face and the young, black female with it all in front of her. At one point, after they’ve edged closer in one polished scene after another, he asks her what she wants to do with her life. I’m doing it, she replies. He’s confused. You act, I protect – we each do our thing, she explains. He shrugs, accepts, and they edge still closer to each other. Later, she runs lines for him, and it’s a playful touch on Meyer’s part that all Georges’s lines come across like prayers begging for guidance or forgiveness, while Aïssa’s suggest someone making a declaration of love.
What a surprise this film was. Lost down the back of the Covid sofa, it never got the release it should have done. But it is superb – light-footed when it could have been oafish, with Depardieu reminding us how delicate he can be when he puts his mind to it. Lukumuena is also full of subtlety and surprises, which include borrowing some of Depardieu’s shtick now and again – a tilt of the head, a roll of the eye, something half-muttered under the breath. I’m not sure she even knows she’s doing it but it conveys better than any line of dialogue that these two people at some level have connected.
How did a first-time feature director like Meyer get Depardieu? No idea. But before this Meyer made three shorts and Depardieu featured in them all, which either means he’s incredibly generous with his time (in the nine years between Meyer’s first short and Robust, Depardieu also appeared in over 45 movies, TV shows and shorts) or he’s her secret father, lover or something.
She has rewarded him with a great role which he plays as a love letter to himself at his best. Even when Georges is behaving unreasonably we are never in any doubt that it’s either because he’s wounded, afraid or just bored out of his mind – look at how many conversations Georges’s young director has with his star, all of them in effect attempts to teach Georges how to suck eggs.
At its heart this is a story about an ageing male bellowing at a world he no longer understands. It mystifies him and, impotent, incapable of change, he gets angry. See social media for more on that.
“Robust” is Georges’s estimation of himself. But in this film it’s quite obvious that it’s everyone else who is pretty robust. Georges not so much.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023