Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

At several points in Mammuth, the latest feature from Benoît Délépine and Gustave de Kervern (Aaltra, Avida, Louise-Michel), the ill-educated jack-of-all-trades Serge Pilardosse (Gérard Depardieu) is compared to an elephant. He has a big, lumbering frame. He has a "memory like an elephant". His niece, the outsider artist Solange (Miss Ming), will later fashion a sculpture of him from dolls and animal toys, with an elephant representing his heart. And, most importantly, after he retires from his job at a pork slaughterhouse – where he never missed a day's work in ten years – we see him at home, rocking and swaying in the living room exactly the way caged elephants do.

When this working man stops working, he does not know what to do with himself – and he proves spectacularly ill-suited to shopping trips, domestic chores or indeed the modern world. So, like the prehistoric creature of the title, shaggy-maned Serge seems to embody encroaching extinction, forced to face up to his own obsolescence and to a life that has had little meaning or impact.

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If this sounds like the proletarian flipside to Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (2002), Mammuth, too, soon turns into a road movie. Learning that the paperwork for his retirement fund is incomplete, Serge must track down ten past employers, and so he gets his vintage 1973 Münch Mammut motorbike out of storage and hits the road. Like Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (2005), this will be a middle-aged man's trip down memory lane - although it will also be an odyssey through the changing world of work. Serge may leave undone the 2000-piece jigsaw that he received as a retirement gift, but he will instead puzzle out the value of the past and the possibilities of the future, as he exorcises ghosts, adopts a daughter and discovers a new love of life and a new vocation.

"I don't want this, excuse me, leave me alone! I'm not one of you!", Serge will have to scream in alarm as he is almost dragged onto a tour bus by an army of pensioners who have mistaken him as one of their party. Horrified and depressed by his own decline, Serge finds himself surrounded by death. Shopping in the supermarket where his wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau, expertly blending shrewishness with tenderness) still works, Serge passes a man lying collapsed in the frozen goods aisle.

In return for some papers, he must help his former employer (Dick Annegarn) from the cemetery dig up a coffin ("Watch out - 40 per cent of retirees don't reach 65", the man cheerily tells him). He locates another old boss (Philippe Nahon) languishing with dementia in a care home, while the mill where they once worked together has been converted, to Serge's incomprehension, into a high-tech digital animation house. Elsewhere, a bar that he once tended is now just an empty, dilapidated building, matching Serge's own fragile sense of self – and if Serge can still hear the sounds of the abandoned establishment's drinkers in his head, he is also haunted by the ghost of his first love (Isabelle Adjani), still very much a presence many decades after she departed forever.

Reminiscent of Otar Ioselliani's Gardens In Autumn (2006) for both its picaresque structure and its bittersweet, increasingly surreal tone, Mammuth rides through one bleak staging post in Serge's life after another, before finally moving on to a joyous new world of love, freedom, art and philosophy – and it shows that we are all, like any vehicle, made up of parts that can be repaired, renewed or replaced. Anchored by Depardieu's unflinching performance and his sheer physicality, the film mixes melancholic nostalgia and mordant satire with a strong sense of the absurd, and – unlike Serge's jaw-droppingly hilarious encounter with his ageing cousin (Albert Delpy) – it comes with a truly satisfying ending.

Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2010
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An anarchic comedy in which a retired abbatoir worker takes to the road on his Mammuth motorbike in search of the paperwork he needs to get his pension.
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London 2010

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If you like this, try:

About Schmidt
Broken Flowers