It might be a little excessive to start a review of a French comedy film in psychoanalytical terms, but there are a few interesting points that it might be helpful to bear in mind when you come to watch Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine’s Mammuth. Principally, the idea for the film – or at least its central image of Gérard Depardieu with long hair, riding a motorbike down the open road – came from a dream that Benoît Delépine had. Not a David Lynch kind of nightmare vision that throws light on a disturbed or tortured psyche by any means, but still an evocative image. He’s riding a Münch Mammuth, a German motorbike created in the 60s with the engine of a car, one of the most powerful bikes in the world, which also has resonances relating to power, control and virility. One should also consider that it is Gérard Depardieu riding the bike, a man who one could say is the physical embodiment of those attributes in French cinema – a little past his prime now, rather round in the middle and craggy at the edges – but these are all significant points that it’s worth keeping in mind as you watch the film. But not necessarily. Mammuth is after all just a comedy film and a quite funny one if watched just on that level.
In any case, it’s an inspired choice to have Gérard Depardieu play Serge Pilardosse, a worker at a pork processing plant who has just been retired and left with a gift of a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle to fill his days. Serge’s peaceful retirement lasts for about 2 days – if even that – when after a few failed attempts to do some minor DIY around the Pilardosse household and an incident-filled shopping trip to the supermarket where his wife works on the checkout, Catherine (Yolande Moreau) decides that it’s just not going to work out and that he needs something more to occupy his time and get him out from under her feet – not to mention try to bring some additional money into the house. As his employment records are incomplete and stamps towards his retirement find haven’t been paid for the full term of his lifetime of employment, Serge decides to dust-off the Mammuth and hit out on the road again to track down all the small jobs he has worked over the years and try and get the records updated. Didn’t I mention that Mammuth is also a “road-movie”?
The road movie is nothing new for filmmakers Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine, two of the minds behind the popular and successful French television comedy unit known as Groland, who used the format in two of their previous films, Aaltra and Avida, finding it a useful means of stringing together the more episodic, situational comedy of the comedy sketch show. To a large extent, the same approach applies to Mammuth, particularly in the earlier scenes, which place Serge in a number of embarrassing situations to see how the big man will react, and the results are indeed very funny, Depardieu dead-panning the comedy, using his physical bulk to give an additional edge to the proceedings – or rather not using it at all, but letting it speak for itself. Even if it’s just trading insults with the butcher at the supermarket who doesn’t take any pride in his work (played by one of the directors, Gustave Kervern), the interaction is terrific. I need only mention that there are additional cameo appearances later on from such Franco-Belgian comedy character actors as Benoît Poelvoorde and Bouli Lanners, to indicate the whole tone of the satirical comedy that is played out here.
But Mammuth offers more this time as a road movie than just as a framework to hold together a few funny sketches, providing a structure that, although it does tend to follow the conventional line, does at least introduce a deeper element to the character, his make-up and the crux that Serge faces at this time in his life. Inevitably, now retired and travelling out on the road on his bike, there is an expression of freedom that is captured wonderfully in the on-road sequences, but it’s also a journey backwards in time, revisiting places where he once lived and worked (and in the kind of places that don’t exactly keep detailed tax records of their employee history), revisiting old family (where the relationships are somewhat peculiar) and coming back to terms with one particular incident involving his first love (Isabelle Adjani) has clearly had a significant impact on his life.
I’m not convinced that there’s any great depth or originality to the character development, but the grainy footage that has the look of Super 16 (but may just be pushed 35mm stock) creates a deeper mood that gathers momentum with the journey. Ultimately however, it’s the casting of the ideal actors that gives additional weight to the deadpan surreal humour that otherwise rightly takes precedence, Depardieu and Moreau in particular bringing all their experience to the table, allowing as much if not more to be expressed through the understated delivery and silent moments of immense poignancy.