Has there ever been a comedy in which every single joke struck you as equally funny? Just curious, because if the worst thing that French directing duo Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern‘s latest film, “Saint Amour” can be accused of is a certain reckless hit-and-miss quality, it’s in pretty good company. A late-festival treat to wash away the brain grime accrued over the previous day’s 8-hour Lav Diaz marathon, perhaps, or a sweet little bonbon served up as a reward for sticking around for this final weekend when so many others have skedaddled, its joyously tacky humor, and extreme, eccentric lovability, are a tonic and a trip. It shares narrative DNA with about half of the back catalogue of Alexander Payne, (equal parts “Nebraska” and “Sideways” with a faint of bouquet of “About Schmidt“), but “Saint Amour” is twice as funny as any of them, less than half as pretentious despite being ineffably French, and, running counter to Payne’s notorious misanthropy, it has a heart so big it could fit all three of those movies inside it and still have room for Gérard Depardieu.
Delépine and Kervern, in their 6th collaboration have perfected the art of creating characters you can simultaneously laugh at and with. Here, these shambolic yet charmant individuals are represented by three generations of French-speaking acting talent: Depardieu plays Jean, the elder lemon, a recently widowed farmer who hopes his son will take up his cattle-obsessed mantle but can only seem to express his true feelings in furrow-related farming metaphors. Belgian national treasure Benoît Poelvoorde (“The Brand New Testament,” “Three Hearts“) plays the resentful son Bruno, constantly pasting the greasy remnants of his hair to his head as a nervous tic, who longs to escape farm drudgery for the comparative glamor of a local gardening center. Bruno blames his chronic lack of success with women on the idea that he is “cursed” (the truth veers a lot closer to “creepy”) — not a problem that their goodlooking driver apparently has. Fresh from his roles in Mia Hansen-Love‘s “Eden” and Julie Delpy‘s “Lolo,” Vincent Lacoste lends his Parisian sneer and cupid’s-bow pout to the role of Mike, the casually insolent taxi driver who agrees to take father and son on a bonding tour of the wine region around Paris, while Jean awaits a date with fate in the form of a competition which might finally net him top prize for his beautiful white bull, Nebuchadnezzar.
At first the laughs come in the form of cringey chuckles as wastrel Bruno, determined to enjoy his time away from the farm at the Parisian agriculture fair they attend annually, samples all the wines on offer, hits on every woman he sees and turns bitter and shouty when they, inevitably, reject him. But they, and the film, are soon liberated from these confined quarters. Jean, bulky as a bear but soft as a marshmallow (and it’s a lovely, simple performance from Depardieu that reminds us that his range encompasses the lower as well as the higher end of the bluster spectrum) wants to reconnect with his son. So he hires Mike to drive them all over the country sampling wine — Bruno’s true passion, though more for alcohol content than oenophilia. It’s not really a spoiler to confirm that yes, they do reconnect, because “Saint Amour” is not a film that makes a secret of wishing only the best for its tenderly drawn ensemble of buffoons.
Cattle farming vs viticulture, town vs country, old vs young, farmer vs sophisticate, attractive vs hopeless — there are many dichotomies that separate the three guys who, despite mutual shifting tides of antagonism, spend almost every waking moment together for the next few days. But like any road trip, this is as much about the people you meet as the people you’re with, and along their boozy route Jean, Bruno and Mike encounter a series of people — bar a hilarious cameo from Michel Houellebecq as the owner of a believably dire bed and breakfast, they’re all women — into whose own dramas they can’t help but insert themselves. These vignettes include a waitress, an estate agent, an overweight ex-ice skater identical twin, a bachelorette party, a flirt at a hotel breakfast buffet and finally a flame-haired horse-riding hotelier unsubtly named Venus (Céline Sallette), who runs an eco lodge where your bed-hopping can be facilitated by zipline, and who cries when looking at eggs.
If it sounds dodgy, well yes it is: the film’s point of view is rooted with the men, and not one of them understands a single thing about women. But that’s the sweet little point that Delépine and Kervern are making — men without women are absurd. Mainly for not realizing that women without men are similarly so. A lot of the film’s loopy, silly humor comes from those moments when the women cease to be projections of some idealized, and are revealed instead to have a lunacy all of their own.
It runs out of steam before the end, and the Venus chapter that concludes it is certainly the most on the nose in its overtly fable-like construction. But by then, having glugged and sloshed the film down to that point, you’re probably at stage 5 of Bruno’s “10 Stages of Drunkenness” (Excessive Love) and slobbering tearfully all over it about how it’s your best friend in the whole wide world. Featuring a ridiculously high character-as-comedy quotient and several major LOL moments, the slightness of the shambling odyssey story may keep it off the Grand Cru status accorded only to the very finest wines. But it’s at least, as self-appointed expert Bruno says to a bemused Chiara Mastroianni about the wine she serves in plastic cups at a roadside pizza shack, “Medium Cru. No no: medium and a half.” [B+]