Some time ago I helped my mom look for some missing documents that she needed to have if she wanted to have her full pension when she retired. It was bureaucracy hell: hurrying from one department to another; long queues; indifferent public functionaries. A person works all his life to survive and to have some peace in his final years, but in the end all he has to show for is a collection of little papers that can be lost or destroyed. So I sympathise very much with the journey the protagonist undergoes to recover his own missing documents, in Mammuth.
Gérard Depardieu plays Serge, nicknamed Mammuth (because of his size?), a man who began working at sixteen and who has reached retirement age. After a lifetime of work, he finds settling down a difficult task: he can’t relate very well to his wife (Yolande Moreau), who continues to work for a minimum wage at a supermarket; he doesn’t have any hobbies; and he’s not good at fixing little things at home. To make matters worse (or better, depending on the perspective), Serge discovers he’s missing some paperwork that enables him to receive his full pension, so he hops onto his old bike and goes out on a journey to find his former employers and to simultaneously rediscover his lost youth.
Mammuth is a serious-comic movie, full of odd-ball characters and dark humour, which tries to say something about modern labour. Minimum wages, social resentment, fiscal fraud, exploitation and the erosion of labour rights are discussed, with varying degrees of insight and success. The movie is very unbalanced and hits its targets as often as it misses them. The movie fares well during its comedy parts. But its attempt at seriousness is undermined by the superficiality of the way important matters are treated.
The movie also suffers from trying to be too many movies in one. From road movie to social satire it’s an easy jump, you can mix the two together. But the filmmakers also decided to include an awkward subplot involving a bike accident in Serge’s past that killed his true love (played, with usually creepy eyes, by Isabelle Adjani). And what does that have to do with Serge’s quest? OK, he uses the journey to meet old friends and relive his youth, but this ties directly to the main story of a man who wasted his whole life working and who’s now trying to fill it with something. It makes thematic sense. But Adjani’s ghostly presence seems to belong in a horror movie or a heavy drama and I can easily imagine Mammuth working without her subplot.
In spite of the movie’s shortcomings, Depardieu’s performance is spotless. First all I love how unglamorous he looks in this movie. He’s old, he’s got long, dishevelled hair, and he’s obese. And he’s not shy about showing it, as his many nude scenes prove. It’s so rare to see characters without perfect bodies in movies (except to be the target of bad jokes), that Depardieu’s shabby looks already make this movie stand out.
But it’s Depardieu’s acting that deserves attention. The movie isn’t anything special but Depardieu makes it soar above mediocrity. He took an incoherent screenplay and transformed himself into a moody, brusque, but likeable working class guy. With Serge’s rough manners and dry humour guiding us through the movie, Mammuth becomes a palatable experience. Fans of solid performances will enjoy it, and fans of Depardieu must watch it. Otherwise my suggestion is to give this movie a pass.
Director: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine
Screenplay: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine
Cast: Gérard Depardieu, Yolande Moreau, Isabelle Adjani, Miss Ming
Runtime: 92 min