A modest but scathing portrait of ordinary small-mindedness in a nowhere town in southwestern France, “The Back Country” radiates eerie, piercing authenticity. This first feature directed by and starring scripter Jacques Nolot (whose credits include Andre Techine’s “I Don’t Kiss”) won the Prix Georges Sadoul and is a shoo-in for fests, especially gay ones.
Pic provides an unusually trenchant glimpse of brutish men and women leading lives of quiet desperation, as seen through the eyes of a successful actor, now 50, who left home at age 16. The movie exudes a comparable sense of place, at once so precise and so universal, to last year’s Cinemas en France entry “La vie de Jesus,” though it achieves none of that pic’s formal beauty, except during flamboyant flashbacks to the lusty vigor of rugby games and the supple pelvises of bullfighters.
Dapper native son Jacques Pruez (Nolot) returns home for only the third time in 20 years, to see his dying mother. His brief, eventful stay will underline all the reasons he had to leave in the first place. These include a spendthrift father, a crass younger brother, two colorful aunts whose behavior during the war wasn’t exactly exemplary, and the bulk of the remaining population, who made fun of him for being effeminate.
Because Jacques is an actor on TV, the locals ask him for autographs at his mom’s burial. But one gets the distinct impression that, were he not a minor celebrity, they’d just as soon beat him to death with clubs. In addition to the reigning discomfort among surviving family members, Jacques discovers his parentage isn’t quite what he thought.
The prevailing sense of waste may be sad, but the film itself is not glum, since Jacques’ urban demeanor adds a wry layer to the proceedings.
First half of the pic details the mother’s death and funeral, including arresting sequences of her naked corpse being bathed and dressed by neighbor women. Pic is made up of simple, real, necessary gestures contrasted with lingering, ambient nastiness. Camera angles are tasteful and intimate.