At a table in his house, Georges, an aging movie star with a reputation for uninsurable off-set shenanigans — played in a staggering coup of against-type casting by Gérard Depardieu — is running lines with his private security guard Aïssa (“Divines” breakout Déborah Lukumuena). While they rehearse, Georges cracks walnuts under heavy whomps from his meaty fist; Aïssa barely flicks a brow in response but her alarmed amusement is palpable. This funny little scene is Constance Meyer’s charming, refreshingly un-sappy odd-couple dramedy “Robust” in miniature: Depardieu all bluster and boom, Lukumuena quietly snaffling whole scenes away from him with just the sparkle in her eye.
The tale of an unlikely friendship blossoming between a wealthy older white man and his young Black helper might set the schmaltz alarm a-tinkling, but this is no “Intouchables,” and not just because, with its tactile emphasis on skin and heft and physical contact, “Robust” feels entirely touchable. Also Meyer, co-writing and directing her debut film, avoids the genre pitfalls of obvious big gestures and grand reversals, and instead tracks a relationship that deepens each participant’s sense of themselves without itself necessarily changing that much.
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Georges and Aïssa do not hate each other on first sight, though Georges, whose expansive waistline has nothing on the girth of his ego (“I like being a fucker,” he says, nonchalantly rejecting some non-confrontational course of action) is wary of the change she signals. Irascible in his loneliness and lonelier because of his irascibility, he has come to rely on Aïssa’s security company boss Lalou (Steve Tientcheu) as his helpmate and is reluctant to make a switch.
But it’s a fait accompli and so Aïssa, a talented amateur wrestler pursuing a tentative maybe-relationship with co-worker Eddie (Lucas Mortier), steps in. Her new responsibilities are many and varied, she’s a driver, a secretary, a bodyguard, and a babysitter (both to Georges and his little son when he comes to stay), and trickiest of all, she has to get Georges to attend fencing lessons for a new film role (“Robust” has a neat line in sideswipes at the film industry).
She takes to the job, and goes above and beyond, not for any reason except she is secure in herself and kind in her outlook. The almost entirely hangup-free Aïssa ought to make for the blandest character imaginable, yet Lukumuena’s charisma renders her magnetic. With her as the lodestar, “Robust” becomes one of those rare pictures that makes the everyday virtues of decency, solidity and good sense into heroic attributes – all the more unusually located within a plus-size Black woman, whose body shape the film discreetly celebrates, without making it some fraught psychological issue.
Georges and Aïssa treat each others’ differences in age, social class, and ethnicity with similar tactful respect. And if Meyer and Marcia Romano’s cleverly understated script suggests some sort of subconscious kinship in the larger bodies that both characters carry, a bigger point is made of emphasizing the different ways they live in them: Aissa with a glow of youth, health, and grace, Georges with an asthmatic smoker’s huff and a tendency for nighttime panic attacks. Indeed, with Aïssa, the French phrase “bien dans sa peau” (“good in her skin”) has never seemed so appropriate: Simon Beaufils’ camera positively adores her.
At times, David Babin’s choral score may strain a muscle with all the heavy lifting it’s doing to ensure that this unsentimental, pragmatic movie has its ethereal, dreamy aspect too. And some of the more fanciful flourishes, such as a tank of ugly sharp-toothed fish that Georges has brought in “from the abyss,” feel a shade too heavy with symbolism, while it’s a little on the nose too that only Aïssa, the film’s steady heartbeat, can quell Georges’ episodes of tachycardia.
But films don’t have to surprise in order to charm, and so we’re thoroughly charmed by the time it does actually pull off its most unexpected beat. In an elegant switch that probably shouldn’t work, the final moments of a story that has belonged to Aïssa’s until now, suddenly reorient back onto Georges, as he delivers a monologue on the first day of shooting his new costume drama. After all his brash buffoonery, there’s a sudden gravitas to him, which gives rise to a neat art/life parallel: Just as Georges shows the talent behind his legend at the 11th hour in the film-within-a-film, so does Depardieu with “Robust,” inviting a sweetly metafictional take on the movie as an act of intergenerational generosity and mutual elevation between one of France’s most accomplished movie stars, and one of its blazing newest.
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