Nearly four decades after winning his first Cesar, French star Jean Rochefort (whom Americans may recognize as the man Terry Gilliam intended to play Don Quixote) is still working steadily, though hardly ever in films of note. Simply put, projects like “Floride” — based on Florian Zeller’s prize-winning play “The Father” — rarely come his way anymore. Boasting a lead role as juicy as a sun-ripened orange, this late-career blessing may as well be Rochefort’s “Nebraska,” allowing the beloved character actor to adapt his persona — in which venerability leaves room for an almost childish streak of mischief — to that of a once-proud patriarch suffering from dementia. Sensitive without lapsing into sentimentality, “Floride” marks the sort of gently irreverent French film that elderly arthouse auds seem to love best, blending humor and pathos to crowd-pleasing effect.
Whereas Alexander Payne paid tribute to his personal corner of the American expanse in “Nebraska,” this film offers no such geographical connection for Gallic director Philippe Le Guay (“The Women on the 6th Floor”): “Floride” spends a grand total of maybe five minutes in Miami, and the rest in southern France, where retired paper-factory manager Claude Lherminier (Rochefort) seems to be slipping farther into his own fantasies with each passing day. More than a physical location, Florida represents a state of mind for the fading old man, whose youngest daughter left France for the Sunshine State some 15 years earlier.
That leaves the considerable challenge of handling Claude’s various eccentricities — which mostly involve harassing a succession of exasperated housekeepers — to his older daughter, Carole (Sandrine Kiberlain), who already has her hands full running the family business. For nearly half its overlong running time, the film plays it coy about the seriousness of Claude’s condition, privileging his point of view with brief flashbacks and subtly skewed fantasy sequences without letting on that these interruptions are indicative of his mental deterioration.
Claude sincerely believes that he’s physically and mentally fit enough to get by on his own, and the movie supports his position (at least at first) by showing him pulling clever stunts, such as knocking over furniture and pretending to have fallen, in order to get his caregiver fired. But Le Guay’s script (co-written with Jerome Tonnere) gradually undermines Claude’s sense of independence, revealing how he often forgets things, from where he hid his watch to which of his wives was the mother of his children. As such clues arise, we’re forced to reevaluate whether he actually belongs in an assisted living facility, just as his daughters must inevitably decide. After all, Claude’s two girls are clearly the most important things in his life — though we also realize that he’s actively deluding himself about which of them could realistically care for him as the combative old coot enters the final (and neediest) stretch of his life.
While not as openly abrasive as any of the “bad” characters concocted by recent American comedies about disrespectful grandpas, teachers or shopping-mall Santas, Claude certainly upsets the relatively rigid codes of conduct in polite French society. After taking perverse delight in reading the obituary of an old rival, for example, he has the nerve to visit the man’s widow and request that she bury him in another cemetery, later going as far as the hire movers to dig up the coffin. Worse still, when a stranger honks at him for dawdling in the street, Claude unzips and urinates on the hood of her car.
It’s amusing to see how Rochefort plays such scenes, as the distinguished thesp maintains an air of propriety even in such circumstances, flashing an impish grin — a “who, me?” bid for instant forgiveness — that will be our cue to laugh, even as the hurtful words off his lips cut the target of his barbs to their very core. Only thick-skinned caregiver Ivona (a small but impactful cameo by “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” star Anamaria Marinca) proves tough enough to take his abuse. Over time, his negativity becomes too much even for Carole, whose romantic involvement with a genuinely empathetic co-worker (Laurent Lucas) suffers from the fact that she prioritizes her father’s happiness above her own.
In the wake of “Amour,” it’s hard to imagine any director dealing with the challenges of old age as profoundly as Michael Haneke did in that film. What seems to work for “Floride” (albeit strictly for audiences with relatively broad tastes) is the decision to go in the opposite direction, trying to keep things light, at least superficially, while allowing the impact of its tragedy to creep up on us: that sooner or later, we all give out, and that the dignity of how we experience the final stretch depends entirely on our loved ones. Little touches that seemed merely comedic at first, such as the brightly colored Velcro sneakers Claude wears on a flight to Miami, reveal themselves to have a deeper, more poignant significance as the film unfolds — as does the plane trip itself, which Le Guay interweaves throughout, inviting laughs even as our convictions mount that Claude has no business visiting Florida after all.