Remember The Intouchables from 2011? The lovable French dramedy focused on a quadriplegic man and his Black carer. It has since been remade in Argentina and India as well as getting a flashy Hollywood remake starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston.
The reason I bring up The Intouchables is that watching Robust, Constance Meyer’s new film, it’s impossible not to constantly be thinking of that film. The setting is too similar, but it doesn’t have the warmth or charm of The Intouchables. In other ways, Robust might in fact be the better film.
Gérard Depardieu plays a grumpy, ageing movie star Georges who is in constant need of care. He is assigned Aïssa (Déborah Lukumuena) to act as his bodyguard, driver and companion. The two strike up a friendship and the rest of the film plays out exactly as you expect it to.
I often do a quick search on the people involved in whatever film I’m watching and I did so with Robust as well. Gérard Depardieu is one of France’s most internationally successful film stars, but he’s also had his fair share of troubling, serious allegations of rape that I was not aware of prior to watching the film.
Robust is entertaining and funny, but it comes with a cloud of uncertainty and while I enjoyed the film while watching it, I immediately got a bad taste in my mouth from reading about Depardieu’s allegations. Which brings me to the question without a coherent, correct answer; should we separate the art from the artist? I genuinely do not know.
Despite Depardieu’s problematic presence, there’s much to admire in Robust. Lukumuena feels like the true star of the show and in many ways, this is her film. She is shown to have motivations and a life outside of her friendship with Georges and it’s instantly fascinating stuff, especially her budding relationship with a guy from her gym. It’s almost a shame whenever the film cuts to Georges, who is a difficult character to like and even claims “I like being a fucker.” Charming.
Robust also rejects the kind of overly-sweet sentimentalism that made The Intouchables such a global hit, but also soured the film for many. Robust is the more mature and complex of the two, but it also fails to say anything we haven’t heard before.
The odd-couple dynamic between Depardieu and Lukumuena feels familiar and stale, even if it’s well performed. One of the film’s best scenes happens in the last third as Georges rudely interrupts Aïssa’s date. He hounds Aïssa’s companion to reveal whether or not he loves her, leading Aïssa to confess “I know he doesn’t love me. I just don’t need to hear it.”
The line is delivered with quiet acceptance and defiance by Lukumuena. It’s a heartbreaking moment, handled beautifully. A lesser film would have accompanied it with some longing gazes and some emotional piano chords in the background, but Meyer relies on Lukumuena’s acting alone to deliver the emotional weight of the scene and it works brilliantly.
Meyer’s direction is confident and for a first feature, Robust (like She Will, another first feature from a female filmmaker opening this week) is very impressive, even if the narrative is a bit of a disappointment.
Robust is now in cinemas.