Serge Pilardos (Gérard Depardieu) is a gargantuan, shaggy-haired sixty-something who spent most of his life working at the local abattoir. Now he is retired with only a two-hundred piece puzzle to mark all those years of hard work. His wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau) discovers he has not amassed the proper paperwork to qualify for a state pension. What Serge needs are ten affadavits from each of his former employers. So he sets out on his motorbike along the open road in what proves to be an eventful, eye-opening, and often very odd journey.
Named after Serge’s vintage motorbike, Mammuth is a strange, obtuse little film that proves alternately charming and confounding. Co-directors Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine shot to fame with a series of satirical comedies on French television and this, their fourth feature film, mines a similar vein of social satire. It is partly an attack on the absurdities of Gallic bureaucracy, but also society’s indifferent attitude to those who, for whatever reason, do not fit into the mainstream. Serge discovers almost all the places where he used to work have long since vanished (e.g. the mill where he turned the grindstone is now a studio specialising in 3-D animated storyboards!) and encounters young folk who are either unhelpful or else openly hostile. However, as Serge revisits his past and is haunted by bloodied spirit of an old flame (a suitably spooky Isabelle Adjani) who may or may not have perished in a motorcycle accident, there is the sense his eyes are being reopened to a world of freedom and possibilities beyond his cloistered, humdrum world. This proves particularly true when he strikes up a friendship with his very odd niece, Miss Ming (Miss Ming) who dreamily sniffs and strokes him and proves prone to such peculiarly inspiring poetry as: “Open your eyes. Open your nostrils. Open your ass.” Which underlines the film’s problem. It is often too wacky for its own good.
Once Serge hits the open road, the film trades the stark realism of its early scenes for wry surrealism. Our hero encounters an array of eccentric characters and strange situations: a singing gravedigger (Dick Annergarn), a territorial scavenger, a woman with a broken leg (Anna Mouglalis) who insists he help her use the toilet. De Kervern and Delépine’s wilful strangeness occasionally undermines the human thread running through the story. Some of the incidents are genuinely amusing, as when Serge and some other men at a roadside cafe are moved to tears by another man’s phone conversation with his young daughter, but others veer too far into leftfield (e.g. Serge nonchalantly masturbating his cousin Pierre (Albert Delpy) or joining Miss Ming and her friends as they take a dump on a golf course, or Miss Ming ruining her own job interview by remarking how she writes poetry in her own menstrual blood). It becomes almost a parody of the familiar life-changing road trip picture, alternately mocking and embracing its own ideas of self-discovery. Thankfully, Gérard Depardieu grounds the film with his endearingly bedraggled, befuddled performance, which some critics claim was based on his own father, though Serge could just as easily be the character he played in his cinematic breakthrough Les Valseuses (1974), more than thirty years and several dozen pounds down the line. And for all its random weirdness, the film’s closing scenes do prove heartwarming.