Sitting alone on a train, Robert Avranche (Alain Delon), a middle-aged, alcoholic garage owner, soliloquizes how his life is going nowhere and resolves to drink himself into a stupor. He awakens to find an attractive woman named Donatienne Pouget (Nathalie Baye) staring at him. She tells Robert, she has been watching him carefully for the past ten minutes and wants to have sex with him, right here and now. Only in French movies, eh?
Thus begins a most offbeat love story, by turns surreal, darkly comic, melancholy and moving. Notre Histoire has the same freewheeling structure as past anarchic classics by Bertrand Blier, notably his breakthrough movies Les Valseuses (1974) and Buffet Froid (1979). Bleary-eyed Robert maintains a hilarious poker face thrust from one absurd incident to another, where everybody reacts to outrageous events as though they were commonplace and recounts their stories in the third person (the title translates as “Our Story” although the film was sold overseas as “Separate Tables”). Throughout the craziness, Blier feeds the audience little pieces of character information at a time. Gradually we learn Robert has walked out on his unfaithful wife and their two little girls. Similarly, Donatienne has lost her husband and family, and now seeks solace in meaningless sex just like Robert finds consolation guzzling endless bottles of beer. In most movies this would seem seedy and depressing. Here, it is romantic in a uniquely French way.
Robert inveigles his way into Donatienne’s house. Happy to watch her spend his money on good times and sleep with whomever she chooses, so long as he has her companionship. But Donatienne is in love with Duval (Gérard Darmon), who wants nothing to do with her. This drives her to pick up yet another train passenger (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who arrives at her crowded home, wondering what he’s got himself into. Robert’s brother Sam (Philippe Laudenbach) arrives with three friends, hoping to rouse him from his drunken state. Instead they have a massive fight, but when a neighbour, Emile (Michel Galabru) complains about the noise, Robert leads everybody next door for a party where they all admire Emile’s horrified wife Madeleine (Geneviève Fontanel), in her transparent nightgown.
Robert trashes the place, losing his fight with the odious Duval, while dejected Donatienne abandons them both. Madeleine is miserable, but cheers up after handsome Robert makes love to her, with her husband’s consent, in full view of the neighbours. A little unhappy his wife has had more orgasms with this stranger than with him, Emile goes in search of Donatienne. Upon return - having briefly mistaken his neighbour’s identical living room for his own - Emile returns to find he has crossed through some kind of time-warp. Robert has been resident in his home for a whole week and, dressed in satin pyjamas amidst a luxurious boudoir, holds court alongside Madeleine before an army of men in dressing gowns who’ve gathered to cheer his rebellion against bourgeois conformity. Look out for a young Jean Reno amongst their number.
In an unconventional, yet humanist touch, Donatienne’s promiscuity marks her not as a slut, but as Robert observes, a warm-hearted, generous soul. We see evidence of this as all the neighbourhood men warmly reminisce about sleeping with her. When Robert attempts a reconciliation, he finds a completely different woman living in Donatienne’s home with her children. She claims to have lived there for the past year. He then visits a florist where the mysterious old shopkeeper, who seems to know everything about the last few days, tempts him with a fridge full of beer from around the world. She suggests Donatienne never really existed at all…
Throughout the course of Notre Histoire, characters keep pondering what kind of a story are the living through? Robert clearly wants it to be a love story, but Donatienne is resistant to romance, leaving him dejected and lovelorn. Only after a few mind-blowing twists do we finally realise what kind of story this is and the ending (oft-repeated nowadays, but still a surprise) wraps things up on a suitably affecting note. The film is driven by the charm of its stars and while Nathalie Baye is warm and engaging, Alain Delon is magnetic. By the mid-Eighties, Delon no longer seemed to be challenging himself as an actor, resigned to his ongoing run of tough cops and hard-boiled gangsters. Notre Histoire proved he could still pull out all the stops if so inclined, alternating between hilarious drunk and deeply moving sadness, and he won a Cesar Award for Best Actor.
French writer-director who rarely shies away from controversy. The son of actor Bernard Blier, who also appeared in his films, he graduated from documentaries to features and seized international attention with extreme comedy Les Valseuses. Blier then won an Oscar for Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Preparez vos Mouchoirs), and carried on his idiosyncratically humorous style with Buffet Froid, Beau-Pere, Tenue de Soiree and Trop Belle Pour Toi. Since 1991's Merci la Vie he hasn't had much distribution outside of France, but continues to work, still finding roles for Gerard Depardieu.