A radical genre pastiche so far over the top that audiences should be issued oxygen masks, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s extravagantly lensed, socio-romantic experiment “Workers for the Good Lord” is so bad it’s good. From its exquisite naked young women and entertaining African fairy godfather, to the message that a life of crime can be expunged through luck, literacy and the love of a good woman, Brisseau’s eighth feature is a controlled hodgepodge bound to rile some viewers and enthrall others. Although it fits in no known category, it’s a must for anybody programming an “Only in France” film festival.
In its confident and sentiment-driven artificiality, Brisseau’s lyrical, fearless and often ridiculous tale of an illiterate young mechanic who becomes a bank robber on the road to social and emotional enlightenment plays like a cross between “The Wizard of Oz” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” if Karl Marx had had a hand in the script.
Young marrieds Fred (Stanislas Merhar) and Elodie (Coralie Revel) live in low-income housing with their infant daughter. Impetuous, and generous to a fault, Fred is a soft touch who gives his money away, to the detriment of his own family.
But his financial immaturity so infuriates Elodie that she splits the same day he gets fired for head-butting his boss. Elodie may not have been a perfect wife, but she does have a better than perfect body, evident in Fred’s mind’s eye as he obsesses over his lost love.
Saddened by a man begging for an advance on his pension check, Fred impulsively robs the local post office of its cash, escaping in a stolen car with postal clerk Sandrine (Raphaele Godin), who’s always had a crush on him. Fred scatters the booty to his fellow citizens, Robin Hood style.
While hiding out in a school, Fred and Sandrine meet Maguette (Emile Abossolo M’Bo, in a delectable perf), who claims to be a penniless African prince in exile dedicating himself to acquiring massive wealth and restoring his father to the throne. After a surreal lecture in which Maguette poses as a school inspector — the better to encourage some students to emancipate themselves “Zero de conduite”–style — the three hightail it south. There they live in bucolic surroundings while Sandrine patiently teaches Fred to read and write, with side jaunts to knock over the occasional store or bank.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in a bold succession of florid, ever-changing developments Douglas Sirk would have loved. Film buffs could argue for days about Brisseau’s influences: “Gun Crazy,” “Viva Zapata!,” “The Barefoot Contessa,” “They Live by Night” and, uh, “Dynasty” might top the list. Most of what helmer and cast essay reaches beyond hackneyed and pretentious to achieve a sort of grace.
Dreamy Merhar is ideal as the headstrong and ignorant proletarian who gets put through the ideological wringer en route to a laugh-out-loud happy ending. Godin, in her screen debut, is endearingly stiff as Sandrine, and all the more convincing for it. With his formal bearing and faintly regal speech, M’Bo makes pic’s least plausible role the bedrock of the whole wacky enterprise. Vet Paulette Dubost scores as Fred’s elderly grandma, who at one point calmly takes an ax out of his hands.
Use of comically melodramatic instrumental score is artsy yet not fartsy. Pic’s original French title is drawn from Balzac, referring to upstanding workers who toil all their lives on the assumption that a reward awaits them in heaven.