Not everyone in France is a wine connoisseur. In “Saint Amour,” country bumpkin cattle farmer Bruno (Benoit Poelvoorde) tosses back the stuff just to get drunk, estimating that he’s been plastered twice a week for the past 25 years (multiplied out, that’s at least 2,500 times). At the Paris Agricultural Show, Bruno grabs his best friend (helmer Gustave Kervern) and heads straight for the wine stand, aiming to do a virtual tour of France’s wine-producing regions without even leaving the fair — a scenario that’s not even funny for five minutes, even with an overweight Gerard Depardieu playing his exasperated dad. Fortunately, Kervern and co-director Benoit Delepine don’t stop there, delivering a surprisingly sweet, if not entirely successful addition to their unabashedly strange oeuvre.
With a sense of humor that would be right at home on Adult Swim, the French comedy conspirators know a thing or two about orchestrating anarchic road-movie premises, ranging from cross-country wheelchair oddity “Aaltra” to even-weirder Depardieu-on-a-motorcycle outing “Mammuth.” Rather than stay at the agricultural show (where the footage appears to have been shot on the sly, as background characters give the cameras weird looks), Delepine and Kervern wisely take the show on the road, as Jean — who senses his son’s angst and fears that he will abandon the family farm — hires a disrespectful Paris taxi driver (“Lolo’s” Vincent Lacoste) so he and Bruno can do the wine tour for real.
Lest that sound like the setup for a French “Sideways,” rest assured, the directors have next-to-zero interest in trying to appeal to amateur oenophiles (a word Bruno can’t even pronounce), and even less in boosting tourism to the various regions they visit along the way (a blur seen in passing through grubby car windows). At times, “Saint Amour” can actually be quite harsh in its portrayal of what amounts to the French heartland — and especially the provincial mindset of those who live there, as in a hilarious cameo by their “Near Death Experience” star (and French literary firebrand) Michel Houellebecq as a sad-sack bed-and-breakfast owner.
Jean and Bruno are nothing if not glorified hicks, and though it’s nowhere near as ham-handed as Dany Boon’s 2008 hit “Welcome to the Sticks,” the film still relies on plenty of jokes that will register only with French (and neighboring-country) audiences. For the relatively limited international crowds that pay it any mind (Depardieu remains a big enough name to sell abroad), there’s not just the touching father-son dynamic, but a handful of genuinely funny set pieces to earn huge laughs — including three separate occasions in which the film asks us to imagine its huge star having sex.
For Bruno, it’s bad enough competing with their casually seductive taxi driver; the fact that his father gets so much action merely adds insult to injury (especially since Jean is clearly still in love with his late wife, for whom he leaves voicemails at practically every stop on the route). This frustrated middle-aged farmer may be a pathetic character, but Poelvoorde wisely refuses to play him that way. Rather, he’s like a beat-up, bald-patchy rooster attempting to do the cock walk, trying to make the most of his limited assets. He’s constantly fussing with his hair (a spit-stuck “comb-forward”) and fumbling with his words, which leaves no one more shocked than him when a small-town real-estate agent (“The Pornographer’s” Ovidie) actually responds to his clumsy courtship routine.
On the surface, the fact that Bruno and his companions are more interested in seducing the women than in tasting the wine at every stop along their route might seem like a form of chauvinism, but Delepine and Kervern have written each of their fixations with uncommon tenderness. In the past, practically the only female of consequence in their films was Yolande Moreau, who played one half of “Louise-Michel’s” gender-ambiguous duo. Here, they’ve written more than half a dozen roles for some of their favorite actresses (including Chiara Mastroianni, Ana Girardot and Andrea Ferreol, reunited here with her “The Last Metro” co-star), building up to a scene they imagined for Tilda Swinton, in which all three guys — taxi driver included — fall for a fecund Venus (a role that ultimately went to Celine Sallette).
Given the outrageously unsentimental style of their previous films, “Saint Amour” might seem atypically sensitive to the director’s fans, right down to its lovey-dovey title (a play on the name of a Beaujolais wine) and hum-along Sebastien Tellier score, which at one gets quite a bit of mileage from what sounds like a Muzak cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” In at least one case, they’ve actually thrown out material that would have given the film a harsher edge, leaving Depardieu’s early warning, “I stopped drinking when you were young — to protect you,” without any evidence of how he gets when he’s drunk. But they get more than enough laughs from Bruno’s intoxicated state, and besides, wouldn’t you rather see how all three of these characters look when they’re in love?