Mammuth is an interesting movie. Not perfect, or even particularly accessible at times, but definitely an interesting experiment in balancing drama and gonzo comedy. It is not for all tastes, but pleasant enough for those inclined to it.
Serge (Gerard Depardieu, at his slobby best) is a newly retired slaughterhouse worker who is having a little trouble getting his pension worked out. It seems that a number of his previous employers had failed to declare his earnings to the various pension funds, sometimes through laziness or disorganization, but more often to avoid paying their portion. In order to get his retirement check, he has to track down all of these former employers and get either paperwork to prove he worked there, or affidavits to the same effect. So, at the urging of his wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau) he dusts off his old Munch Mammut motorcycle and sets off to collect the documents he needs.
It is a little more difficult than it sounds. A few of his bosses happily comply, to be sure. But others are more of a problem. Some of the businesses have closed up shop entirely, or the owners are dead, or in retirement homes suffering from dementia so profound they are no help. And some rudely reject Serge's appeals for the paperwork, even though they could help if they wanted. His road trip soon morphs into more than a search for a comfortable retirement, and becomes a quest to rediscover himself and heal from old wounds. He is followed everywhere he goes by the bloody ghost of his first love (Isabelle Adjani), who died in a motorcycle accident, while riding with Serge. He has never really let go from the sense of loss that her death opened up in him, and this creates a distance from everyone in his life, from his wife to his estranged brother.
Serge decides to look up his brother, and finds that he is out of the country, though his eccentric niece Solange (Miss Ming, whose character in the film oddly asks to be referred to as Miss Ming as well) welcomes him into their home. Solange is a bit disturbed, mentally, perhaps even autistic or slightly mentally retarded. She makes strange sculptures out of stuffed animals and dolls, and contemplates writing her resume for a job interview on toilet paper with her own menstrual blood, and calmly tells this to the man interviewing her. But she accepts Serge as family, even though she has no memory of him, and her innocent openness to the world begins to make Serge reevaluate his life.
And that's what the film is really about, Serge giving over his bitterness and anger about how his life has turned out, accepting what he has and rejoicing in it. It's not a rejection of hard work or manual labor, or anything as simplistic as that. Serge consistently praises work, and urges others to take pride in what they do, and that doesn't seem to change about him. Rather, it's a philosophical reflection about one's attitude to work and life and love, as small pieces of the larger world. And don't think that this is accomplished in a stern or austere attitude. The film is littered with oddball humor and strange asides. A female hustler explaining to Serge (and demonstrating to him) that her perineum was not damaged in a recent motorcycle accident before stealing his cell phone and cash; an explanation of proper technique from a beach comber; a middle aged man emotionally breaking down in a restaurant after having a smarmy, endearment filled phone conversation with his lover. None of these materially move the plot forward, but they are examples of the muted, ironic amusement that course through Mammuth. Most of it is harmless, and indeed often sheds light on Serge's character even while providing amusement, but there is one disturbing sexual scene between Serge and a close relative whose inclusion is hard to fathom. (And it's not the relative you would expect.)
And that's the sense that pervades the film. It's mostly harmless, often humorous, sometimes profound, and occasionally disturbing. It doesn't always make sense, but Serge is likable enough, and Depardieu is talented enough to make him an inviting character. The performances are all around top notch. But one could wish that writer / directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave de Kervern would have been a bit more focused, and more tightly controlled the narrative. Their at times tenuous control drains a bit of the drama from the film, and lessens its power somewhat. Still, Mammuth is a subtle and mostly satisfying road movie that has some interesting things to say about life. Recommended.
The video is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good. The colors are a bit muted, but the contrast is sharp. There are occasional moments of heavy grain, but these are clearly used for effect by the directors.
The audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and is fine, but nothing spectacular. No hiss or other issue is audible, and the dialogue is always clear. English subtitles are included for non-French speakers, but cannot be turned off.
No extras are included, which is something of a letdown. A film this unique could have benefited from some comments from the creative team or a meaty director's commentary.
Mammuth could fairly be described as quirky, and perhaps the high level of quirk obscures the narrative at times. Most of the time, however, the idiosyncrasies of the film are endearing rather than obfuscating, and allow the viewer to relax and laugh, all the while being pulled down the path the directors are walking. It's sort of a backhanded trick, getting us to chuckle and wonder at the weirdness while slipping in some subtle character insights and philosophical points while we aren't looking. This subtlety goes a little far from time to time, and the viewer is left wondering what the point is. But these moments pass, and the next pleasantly strange scene unfolds, and carries us on to the end. Overall, the ride is worth it, and more the point than any destination.