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‘Nobody’s Hero’ Review: Alain Guiraudie Disappoints With a Scattershot Terrorism Comedy

The 'Stranger by the Lake' provocateur's latest attempts to be both bawdy bedroom farce and anti-Islamophobia satire, two targets that prove difficult to hit at once.

Nobody's Hero
Courtesy of CG Cinema

As far-right sentiment surges in France ahead of April’s presidential elections — and lawmakers continue to concern themselves with hijab bans — the time is urgently right for artists to challenge the country’s enduring history of Islamophobia. On the face of it, “Nobody’s Hero” seems like a useful contribution in that regard. Set amid the tense aftermath of a radical terrorist attack in the placid central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, Alain Guiraudie’s latest feature centers on a weak-willed white man caught between being an ally and an oppressor to a homeless Muslim youth in his neighborhood, wryly commenting on a middle-class society that oscillates between liberal altruism and wary prejudice. Yet this promising setup is derailed by a separate, not especially complementary narrative detailing the same protagonist’s troubled romance with a married local sex worker: Moonlighting as a broad bedroom farce, this heavily plotted but oddly low-energy film winds up too distracted and diluted to score as a vital political satire.

That “Nobody’s Hero” pulls a number of punches is especially disappointing coming from Guiraudie, whose 2013 breakout feature “Stranger by the Lake” sealed his status as one of contemporary French cinema’s nerviest, most playful provocateurs, before his perverse, surreal 2016 follow-up “Staying Vertical” plunged into wilder territory still. With its harsh worldview and graphic but largely unerotic sexual content, that film cost Guiraudie some interest from international distributors. It’s hard to see “Nobody’s Hero” making significant gains on that following its Berlin premiere as this year’s Panorama sidebar opener — though it is, at least by the director’s standards, an altogether more conventional affair.

From the get-go, schlubby thirtysomething Médéric (Jean-Charles Clichet) is, per the film’s title, an almost defiantly unsympathetic figure for the film to focus on: In the film’s opening scene, we encounter him brazenly asking 55-year-old sex worker Isadora (Noémie Lvovsky) out on a date, insisting that he shouldn’t pay her for the pleasure. “I want to hit on you normally, no charge,” he says, with all the charm of someone who has never hit on anyone normally in his life.

That Isadora, after initially rebuffing him, later calls Médéric to take him up on his offer is our first clue that “Nobody’s Hero” unfolds in a Guiraudie-esque parallel universe of perverse human behavior — that this paunchy, balding digital programmer is repeatedly described as a strapping object of desire is one of the film’s funniest running gags. The intriguing gender discourse opened up by this bizarre encounter is stopped short when, mid-coitus in a cheap hotel room, news of a nearby terrorist explosion flashes across the TV screen. Further killing the mood, Isadora’s violent husband Gerard (Renaud Rutten) barges into the room to check on her safety, cuing a macho rivalry for her affections that runs the length of the film.

Returning home, Médéric is asked for money by Selim (Iliès Kadri, in an eye-catching film debut), a young Arab drifter who cannily plays on both the older man’s paranoid suspicion over his ethnicity and his white guilt over that very mistrust. Soon enough, the kid is exploiting that internal conflict for ever-greater acts of hospitality: a place to shelter from the rain, a shower and a dry change of clothes, and finally a place to sleep on Médéric’s sofa bed. With the notable exception of Muslim neighbor Mr. El Alaoui (Philippe Fretun), other residents of the building are similarly accommodating, though Médéric’s fears that Selim is involved with the terrorists endure, fed by a bout of email-snooping. (This is a man who gives with one hand and calls the police with the other.) Guiraudie’s oblique, opaque script likewise aims to keep the audience guessing, inviting us to identify and query our own prejudices and preconceptions in the same way Médéric does.

This is all rather clever, though once these two sources of chaos in our bumbling hero’s life merge, the film’s focus blurs and its bite loosens. Any screen time spent on Médéric, Isadora and Gerard’s old-school love triangle does little to illuminate the more interesting, ambiguous trajectory of Selim — whose eventual entanglement with Isadora only leads to this otherwise bluntly carnal film using sexuality as a punchline. As the film wears on, Selim’s recessive air of mystery begins to feel less like a Rorschach test for the other characters’ biases and more like the film’s own blind spot, as it probes the causes and consequences of Islamophobia without centering any Muslim character’s perspective. Women, too, get the stubby end of the stick in a film that paints an unflattering picture of possessive masculine entitlement, but doesn’t afford Isadora — despite Lvovsky’s game, ribald performance — much in the way of a point of view.

Add in a host of other semi-developed story strands — Médéric’s passive-aggressive seduction by his new boss Florence (Doria Tillier), Selim’s bond with Muslim hotel clerk Charlene (Miveck Packa) and his encouragement by gun-toting neighbor Coq (Michel Masiero) — and “Nobody’s Hero” begins to feel at once slight and overstuffed, its multiple moving parts never quite clicking into fast, farcical gear. At a push, you could say the film’s unsettled, uneven rhythm is reflective of a modern France pulled in multiple political directions, evening out into a bristling, unhappy kind of stasis — in years to come, at least, Guiraudie’s film may seem a strange, revealing curio of its era. Right now, however, it doesn’t feel quite equal to the moment.

‘Nobody’s Hero’ Review: Alain Guiraudie Disappoints With a Scattershot Terrorism Comedy

Reviewed online, Feb. 8, 2022. In Berlin Film Festival (Panorama — opener). Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: "Viens je t’emmène")

  • Production: (France) A CG Cinema presentation in co-production with Arte France Cinema, Auvergne-Rhome-Alpes Cinema, Umedia in association with Cinemage 15, Ufund. (World sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Producer: Charles Gillibert.
  • Crew: Director: Alain Guiraudie. Screenplay: Guiraudie, Laurent Lunetta. Camera: Hélène Louvart. Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym. Music: Xavier Boussiron.
  • With: Jean-Charles Clichet, Noémie Lvovsky, Iliès Kadri, Michel Masiero, Doria Tillier, Renaud Rutten, Philippe Fretun, Farida Rahouadj, Miveck Packa, Yves-Robert Viala, Patrick Ligardes. (French dialogue)