Alain Guiraudie is emerging as a distinctive, perplexing, even exasperating film-maker. In a 20-year career in French cinema, he has long had a soft spot for the playful, the anarchic and the fantastical. Yet maybe we outside France were misled by his outlier hit in 2013, Stranger By the Lake. This was the film with which Guiraudie made his sensational international breakthrough: a gripping homoerotic cruising thriller. This was my own introduction to his work and perhaps it was the atypically serious tone of that which caused me to be disconcerted by the directionless silliness of his follow-up Rester Vertical, or Staying Vertical, in 2016.
Now here is a semi-comic social satire or whimsy; or a jeu d’esprit whose esprit is difficult to locate. It has various themes and ideas which Guiraudie seems unable to take seriously and be successfully funny about. It is a weird caper which comports itself as realist drama, while also laboriously tipping us the wink about its obvious absurdity. The setting is Clermont-Ferrand in central France, where Médéric (Jean-Charles Clichet) is a software designer, a tubby, schlubby guy in his mid-30s who lives alone. We see him one afternoon looking entranced at a total stranger in the street with whom he has evidently fallen in love: Isadora (Noémie Lvovsky) a woman in her 50s who sells sex. He brazenly approaches her, declaring that he wants to make love to her without paying, because that is beneath him.
Mystifyingly finding him sufficiently attractive to waive the fee, Isadora agrees to meet him in a scuzzy local hotel and is transported by his sexual prowess. There are some droll parts here for Yves-Robert Viala as the hotel’s elderly proprietor M Renard, and Miveck Packa as Charlène, a teenager interested in hotel management who is doing a highly unsuitable after-school job as a receptionist. Just as Médéric is reaching his climax, the whole city is blasted by a terrorist bomb, and Isadora’s hatchet-faced husband Gérard (Renaud Rutten) shows up in the hotel room and drags her away. In the new citywide paranoid mood, Médéric becomes convinced that the homeless north African kid Selim (Ilies Kadri) who is hanging around his apartment block is a terrorist. Selim becomes involved in a bizarre farcical imbroglio involving all these people, including Médéric’s colleague Florence (Doria Tillier) who also finds him very attractive.
At one level, Guiraudie is signalling to us that this is all a big joke: he even has Gérard tell Médéric that he is flattered that a “hunk” like him finds his wife attractive. But what really is Nobody’s Hero about? It’s a romp, but a very flavourless romp. There are moments in which the waywardness of the movie has something Buñuelian about it, but that is more a matter of Médéric’s dreams, from which our hero must awaken in a cold sweat. Islamophobia and far-right neurosis have something to do with it, but the movie is not so much satirising these as shrugging at them. The film stands or falls by its claims to deadpan comedy – but this is heavy-handed and unsatisfying.