RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE glue to life. And they’re the lubricant to most stories. The professional relationship between Aïssa (Déborah Lukumuena) and Georges (Gérard Depardieu) is central to Constance Meyer’s film Robust, which is widely punted as a tale of contrasts. It is available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, between 14 until 24 October 2021. Bookings are open.
It’s a problematic film on several levels. The filmmakers are at great pains to emphasise the oddness of the couple in question. She is a semi-professional wrestler who has, as her day job, a security guard gig. He is an aging curmudgeonly actor with a huge reputation in serious French film behind him, and a need to be babysat. He’s not terribly responsible. The relationship is not sexual, but rather philosophical and it is a script he is trying to learn with her assistance that welds the two of them together.
But what the filmmakers do not unpack is the fact that she is a very large black woman. Take the script and recast the role of Aissa as a svelte blond, with all the same proclivities, hobbies and character traits and will the marketing punt of this film lose its edge? When you think odd couples in films, you might think of The Tin Drum’s Oskar Matzerath, who has the body of a three year old, getting down and dirty with the 18-year-old maid in a very controversial scene in the 1979 version of the film directed by Volker Schlöndorff. You might think of Harold and Maude, the beautiful 1971 film directed by Hal Ashby, that sees a relationship between a woman of 80 and a boy barely out of his teens. Seeing a black woman make friends with a white man should not raise the controversial stakes of the film. Seeing a large woman getting intimate with her lover, shouldn’t either.
To its credit, the film plays, somewhat like Fellini’s 8½, into the mish-mash of performance and reality. The Depardieu character interfaces with his scripts and the characters he is playing in a way that makes you think about the nature of performance and how it impacts the real person behind the scripted fiction. And other than a quirky and mesmerising understanding of music and its place, the mysterious and beautiful presence of a dark tank full of anglerfish “from the abyss” as Georges describes them, and the relationship between wrestling and choreography, the film is a very moody but not very inspired piece of work. You emerge at the end with a kind of ‘so what?’ feeling in your head.
Robust is directed by Constance Meyer. Written by Constance Meyer and Marcia Romano, it is performed by a cast headed by Gérard Depardieu, Déborah Lukumuena, Lucas Mortier, Megan Northam and Steve Tientcheu. Produced by Isabelle Madelaine, it features creative input by Babx (music), Simon Beaufils (cinematography), Anita Roth (editing), Judith Chalier (casting) and Julia Lemaire (production design). In French with English subtitles, it is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings are now open.