The belly laughs generated by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern’s “Aaltra” and “Louise-Michel” are less forthcoming in “Mammuth,” an unsatisfying if occasionally amusing hybrid attempt by the helmer-scribes to maintain their offbeat humor while providing an emotional underpinning. Shot on reversible Super 16 for a grainy 1970s look, the pic relies heavily on Gerard Depardieu’s consummate but sagging shoulders while basically wasting national treasure Yolande Moreau. Energy is maintained in the first half as just-retired Depardieu hits the road to find former employers, but the rest wilts under a mishmash of confused sentiment. The helmers’ cult status ensures decent initial sales.
Devoted worker Serge (Depardieu), aka Mammuth, named after his old motorbike, is given a retirement send-off by his buds at a pork slaughterhouse. There’s really no polite way to describe the star’s look here, reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s in “The Wrestler,” but more in keeping with the rules of gravity. Delepine and Kervern also appear to be referencing Darren Aronofsky in the way the camera follows Depardieu from behind, and in a supermarket altercation, though unsurprisingly, there’s more of a sense of the surreal here.
Rather than have her husband literally walk around in circles out of boredom, Catherine (Moreau) suggests he take his motorbike and track down his old employers in order to assemble the paperwork necessary for his retirement benefits. Once feeling the freedom of the road, Serge has repeated visions of the bloody ghost of his first love Yasmine (Isabelle Adjani), who offers the kind of poetic support and love only possible from the dead.
As usual in the helmers’ work, the road-pic format allows for meetings with kooky characters who make short appearances and exits, some leaving trails of laughter such as a pension fund employee (Blutch) and others leaving an unsatisfied feel, like Miss Ming (Miss Ming), Serge’s spacy niece, who serves as a guide for him to open his spirit up to… what, exactly? Viewers are likely to think of Yasmine’s early appearances as a parody of serious pseudo-French New Wave nonsense (especially with Adjani in the role), but then scenes with Miss Ming make it seem the pic is actually being serious, suggesting that Serge’s bedraggled soul will find peace through his niece’s childlike oddball behavior.
With long, stringy hair and a large physical ease, Depardieu certainly inhabits his role, getting under the skin of this doltish but sincere figure looking for something to fill his life. Moreau is given just a few scenes — which she steals, of course — but more could have been done with her character, and Adjani does little except look glassy-eyed (she is a ghost, after all), reciting some reassuring lines about love. Anna Mouglalis relishes her very brief role as a con artist.
The decision to shoot on reversible Super 16mm gives the pic the feel of a slightly avant-garde film from the 1970s, especially in the way its textures and saturated colors resemble Super-8. The mood is enhanced by occasionally quirky angles, fitting right in with the helmers’ aptitude for adding something unexpected in almost every shot, whether via composition or character.