Alain Guiraudie’s “Nobody’s Hero,” which opened the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, is lighter than his last two films, the critically adored “Stranger By the Lake” (a Hitchcockian tale of murder and cruising) and its less loved follow-up, “Staying Vertical.” But one thing it shares with them is its abundance of naked flesh and candid sex.
The wry opening scene introduces Médéric (Jean Charles Clichet), an unattached thirtysomething who lives in Clermont-Ferrand in central France. The gray, rainy town is presented as being resolutely ordinary, and so is Médéric, a freelance computer programmer who is always either sucking on his e-cigarette or jogging up and down the hilly streets in unflattering running gear. He isn’t wholly conventional, though. After a moment’s hesitation, he marches up to a fiftysomething prostitute (Noémie Lvovsky) and announces that he wants to have coffee with her. True, he wants to have sex with her, too, but “buying someone’s body isn’t cool,” so he’d rather they slept with each other “off the clock.” Unbelievably, the friendly Isadora accepts his pompous proposition, and invites him to a chintzy by-the-hour hotel. Soon, Médéric has nothing on except his socks, Isadora has stripped off her Spanx, and viewers are treated to the sight of the kind of wobbling, pale, doughy flesh you don’t see in Hollywood erotic thrillers (not that Hollywood is making those any more).
It’s a brave, amusingly unglamorous, and refreshingly authentic sex scene, but it’s still something of a relief when proceedings are curtailed by a television news report of a terrorist attack in the town square just down the road. Two extremists have gone on a rampage with machetes, and a third man may have been involved. The date isn’t specified but “Nobody’s Fool” counts as a period drama, in that no one wears a face mask or mentions vaccines, and the most frightening threat to Western civilization is Islamic terrorists.
But back to Médéric and Isadora’s drastic case of coitus interruptus. Isadora’s ardor is understandably cooled, but Médéric wants to get his money’s worth, even though he isn’t paying. “It’ll only take five minutes,” he promises. It’s a hilarious, provocative scene — and at this point it looks as if Guiraudie might have something pointed and profound to say about sex and death, and how we stick to our own selfish priorities in the midst of a crisis. The big problem with “Nobody’s Hero” is that there are lots of scenes relating to terrorism, and lots of scenes relating to sex work, but, after Médéric and Isadora have left the hotel, those scenes rarely have anything to do with each other. It feels as if Guiraudie had two separate ideas for a contemporary urban comedy but couldn’t figure out how to develop either of them, so he stuck them in one script and hoped for the best.
In one plotline, the hapless Médéric tries to pursue a relationship with Isadora against the wishes of her devoted but brutish husband (Renaud Rutten), who doesn’t mind her having sex for money, but doesn’t want her to fall in love for free. It’s a droll take on a creaky, dated scenario: Médéric is another of the many smitten men in cinema history who believe that they can save a tart with a heart. It’s also a far-fetched scenario, despite the comically drab naturalism of their couplings. Guiraudie doesn’t reveal why Médéric is fixated on Isadora, and the mystery is deepened by his repeated rejections of a beautiful, more age-appropriate friend (Doria Tillier). There is no obvious reason, either, why Isadora should return his feelings; the only explanation on offer is that he’s an expert at oral sex. But if you can overlook the hokeyness of the set-up there is some good-natured fun in Guiraudie’s jovial farce, not least when Isadora’s husband catches the illicit lovers in the confessional booth of the town’s gothic cathedral. How on earth did they get permission to shoot that?
The film’s other plotline concerns Médéric’s relationship with Sélim (Ilies Kadri), a homeless Arab teenager who begs him for money just after the terrorist attack. Médéric suspects that Sélim was one of the participants, but he lets the boy sleep in the stairwell of his shabby apartment building, and before long he invites him to use his sofa bed and borrow his Asterix comics. Again, this seems pretty far-fetched. Why would Médéric allow a potentially homicidal stranger into his home? Still, the situation has so much social comedy, mystery and ethical debate in its first scenes that it could and should have been the subject of a whole film.
Instead, Médéric keeps drifting between Sélim and Isadora. Whenever his dealings with one of them are on the verge of becoming tense, he wanders off to deal with the other, thus sapping the urgency from both of these unrelated stories. Being generous, you could say that Sélim and Isadora are both excluded by mainstream society, so there is a thematic connection between them. Guiraudie has clearly been pondering class, race and religion. But whenever he has the opportunity to explore an issue or a character in greater depth, he always chooses to jump to another wacky incident elsewhere in Clermont-Ferrand instead. It’s not just Médéric who’s left feeling unsatisfied.
Guiradie has cited Almodóvar and Renoir as influences, but “Nobody’s Hero” is more reminiscent of the scrappy and superficial comedy dramas that Woody Allen made when he was short of new ideas, and fished a couple of old outlines from his desk drawer. After the abrupt and contrived ending — a tangle of punch-ups, chases, and absurd revelations — the only part that lingers in the mind is the nudity, whether you want it to or not.
“Nobody’s Hero” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.