Director: Philippe Le Guay
Screenwriters: Philippe Le Guay and Olivier Dazat, in collaboration with Victoria Bedos.
Runtime: 109 mins.
Australian release date: 29 November 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 12 November 2018.
Set in Mêle-sur-Sarthe, a picturesque village in the Normandy region of France, Philippe Le Guay’s new film Normandy Nude is a comedy about a depressed farming community that is decidedly unhappy because their livestock and dairy prices have plunged due to imported foreign produce. Doesn’t sound like much fun but in the hands of the director of The Women On The 6th Floor and his excellent lead actor François Cluzet, the subject becomes a light-hearted soufflé… although not one that rises to its full height. Many of the local farmers are threatened with foreclosure, so they start picketing and blocking roads, as is common in France, in an attempt to make the authorities aware of their plight. However, as often happens with small communities, the media doesn’t cover the issue because the circumstances aren’t considered newsworthy enough. And then an unexpected opportunity to gain some publicity arises.
Georges Balbuzard (Cluzet) is a middle-aged dairy farmer and Mêle-sur-Sarthe’s long-term mayor. Out-of-the-blue, he is approached by a renowned American photographer, Newman (Toby Jones) and his assistant Bradley (Vincent Regan), with an idea to use a nearby field as the backdrop to his next project and he wants to use all the villagers in his photo, some 200 of them. With just one proviso. Like Spencer Tunick in real-life, Newman’s subjects must all be naked. Mon Dieu! Georges can see the headlines that such an image would generate and he’s savvy enough to know that the French and European media will descend on his petit village like a flock of vultures, but he’s also acutely aware that the townsfolk are religious and conservative, so it’s going to be difficult to convince them to participate. As Le Guay explains, “in the city, the body is explored from every angle, eroticised and trivialised via advertising. In the country, it remains a taboo. This does not mean that the villagers are prudish or puritanical; but their bodies remain a bastion.”
The screenplay of Normandy Nude is ultimately a collection of vignettes about provincial life and the traditional values of the inhabitants of France’s regions, stitched together by the overarching story of the photo. Thus, we are introduced to Roger, the local butcher (Grégory Gadebois) and his voluptuous wife Gisèle (Lucie Muratet), Vincent (Arthur Dupont), a young man born in Mêle but preparing to leave for the big smoke, and his developing love-interest, local woman Charlotte (Daphné Dumons), two farmers (Philippe Rebbot and Patrick d'Assumçao) who have been feuding over possession of a field for generations, a family of Parisians (François-Xavier Demaison, Julie-Anne Roth and Pili Groyne) who have made a ‘tree-change’ and moved to the countryside, and so on. Le Guay and his co-writers have examined all the archetypes of contemporary rural life.
Apart from Cluzet’s performance, Jean-Claude Larrieu’s clean cinematography is the real star of Normandy Nude. “We wanted the film to be bright, for the light to exalt the countryside, to celebrate it. And we had a lot of luck with the weather, shooting in March and April. The sun was shining, the rapeseed grew, apple trees were in bloom, nature exploded,” says the director. It’s a feast for the eyes. Bruno Coulais’ score, on the other hand, overeggs the soufflé (if you can have too many eggs in the dish?) and is a bit too twee for the material. There is, after all, a dark side to the story. Farmers really are being forced off their land, resulting in family separation and suicide in some cases, and the film is not afraid to raise these matters. There’s also a bit of a nasty side to some of the dialogue, revealing nationalism rather than patriotism in some of the villagers, at least some of whom would be the Gallic equivalent of Brexiteers in the UK.
In the final analysis, Normandy Nude, while not without charm, is a bit flat and lacks warmth. Perhaps it’s just too parochial to crossover to an international audience.