Gérard Depardieu in Robust.
Georges (Gérard Depardieu) is a movie star, the kind of actor well-known enough to have fans lurking outside his gate and to get recognized everywhere he goes. As a result, he doesn’t go many places. He’s also grown cantankerous in his old age, and he’s on thin ice after his last job, where he just simply ran off without filming the movie and is being sued by the production company for breach of contract. His security guard/assistant Lalou (Steve Tientcheu) keeps Georges on a tight leash, but when Lalou has to travel on another assignment, he’s replaced by Anïssa (Déborah Lukumuéna). Anïssa, a twentysomething Black woman, becomes a kind presence in Georges’ house, though she has a quiet intensity and an imposing physicality (in addition to being a bodyguard, she wrestles in her spare time). Anïssa is just starting to figure out what she wants from life. And Georges is just starting to figure out what’s missing from his.
Robust operates as a character study and acting showcase more so than a traditional narrative. Sure, stuff happens, but first-time feature director and co-writer Constance Meyer is more concerned with the reactions that Georges and Anïssa have to events than in establishing a plot that moves from A to B to wrapping up with a tidy C. What little tension there is comes from the looming…is “threat” the right word?…of Georges’ next job and whether or not he can be bothered to show up for it. This preparation-for-a-movie-within-a-movie is where much of the film’s humor comes from, as we watch Georges grumble through a wardrobe fitting, stumble through an awkward fencing lesson, and fumble through a rehearsal where he and his costar are interrupted after every two or three words by their overbearing, terminally artsy director. It’d make you want to wander off into the woods, too.
A smart move on Meyer’s part was to not make Georges the stereotypical grumpy old man, the irascible, filterless asshole. Georges is not needlessly cruel, and in fact is quite kind to people who don’t push his buttons. He’s just set in his ways, and lacks patience for those who would make him do things he doesn’t want to do in the moment. Mostly, he’s just lonely, and his time with Anïssa slowly reveals to him that what’s been missing in his cloistered life is real human connection. Anïssa meanwhile is stuck in a one-sided relationship and having trouble focusing at wrestling. Working with Georges starts off as a plum assignment, a chance for advancement to the bodyguarding big leagues protecting heads of state. But the connection she forms with Georges makes her see what’s missing in her own life as well.
It’s hard to describe Robust without making it sound like a traditional Odd Couple story, the Old White Man learns life lessons from the Young Black Woman. But Robust is not that, or at least it’s not just that. The lessons Georges and Anïssa learn are not pat or simple, and they are reached gradually, not through an easy epiphany. So much of the personal growth is shown not through dialogue or even actions but through attitude, the mood shifts that Depardieu and Lukumuéna capture with an understated, realistic subtlety. The two actors work wonders at inhabiting these characters and capturing these gradual shifts in outlook, and the chemistry between the two actors makes their characters’ unlikely friendship feel even more real. | Jason Green
Robust will screen in French with English subtitles at Plaza Frontenac Cinema (1701 S. Lindbergh) on Saturday, November 5th at 12:05pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF website.