By Lawrence Garcia
Dir. Alain Guiraudie, France, Strand Releasing
In the films of Alain Guiraudie, no one ever stops moving. His 1994 short Straight Ahead Until Morning sees a young nightwatchman deliver a ruminative philosophical monologue while running after a man who wants to literally paint the town red. In The King of Escape (2009), a portly, middle-aged tractor-salesman with a taste for “mature” (and usually married) men, upends his life and takes off with a 16-year-old girl across the French countryside, as her family and the law give chase. The leads of both Stranger by the Lake (2013) and Staying Vertical (2016) are, each in their own way, restless drifters. Arguably the purest expression of his characters’ itinerancy, though, is Guiraudie’s Sunshine for the Poor (2001), which delineates a set of crisscrossing trajectories across the Causses, a network of limestone plateaux in central France: a shepherd searching for his flock of ounaye (a never-seen mythical creature); an unemployed hairdresser looking to meet an ounaye shepherd; and an outlaw who, despite being chased by a bounty hunter, proves unable to leave the region. Showcasing Guiraudie’s predilection for buoyant, surrealist storytelling gestures, the film is practically devoid of internal narrative consistency, offering just the sight of characters drifting across a vast, depopulated expanse. For that reason, it also provides the clearest example of how Guiraudie, by simply following out his characters’ wayward trajectories, ends up producing veritable cartographies of desire.
Nobody’s Hero, Guiraudie’s latest, opens by shifting this motif into a satirical key, introducing its protagonist, computer engineer Médéric (Jean-Charles Clichet), in full jogging gear. First seen idling on a sidewalk in Clermont-Ferrand, his bobbing neon-green outline setting up a literal running sight-gag across the film, he soon approaches Isadora (Noémie Lvovsky), a sex worker in a voluminous fur coat. He wants to take her out, but as he’s also firmly “anti-prostitution” and therefore unwilling to pay, he promises that he will pleasure her in ways her regulars cannot. She promptly drives off with a client, but, surprisingly, she calls him back to set up a meeting. Even more surprisingly, he seems to make good on his promise. Their tryst is cut short, though, when news of a terrorist attack a few blocks away comes through the television and Isadora’s husband shows up to take her home. Médéric would like to have at least finished (“Life doesn’t have to stop for a terrorist attack,” he remarks), but he heads back to his apartment all the same. At the entrance of his building, he is approached by a homeless Arab teen, Sélim (Iliès Kadri), for some money.
From there, Nobody’s Hero piles on a series of farcical escalations characteristic of Guiraudie’s wild storytelling. Médéric and Isadora repeatedly try to see each other, attempting (and more often failing) to maneuver around her jealous, abusive husband. Meanwhile, Médéric develops a growing paranoia about Sélim, who returns to his apartment building more than once, and whom he calls the cops on because he suspects the kid might be one of the terrorists still at large. He’s somewhat reassured when the police let Sélim go, and later invites him to sleep on his couch, but this in turn antagonizes his neighbors, who can’t quite agree on how to help the kid, or even whether to help him at all. Things get complicated when some local thugs suspect Sélim of stealing their hash; and even more so when Isadora shows up, having run away from her husband. Rounding out the narrative are subplots involving Florence (Doria Tillier), a prospective employer of Médéric’s who wants to sleep with him, and Charlène (Miveck Packa), an eighth-grade girl who for some reason moonlights as a receptionist at the hotel where Isadora works.
Like The King of Escape, Nobody’s Hero takes place in a world where sexual desire is not just acknowledged as protean and unpredictable but also freely expressed and even accepted. Here, no one questions the legitimacy of one’s libido. At the same time, though, most every other form of prejudice and social repression remains. Across the film, this funhouse-mirror stylization plays like a knowing goof on Freudian principles, transforming each and every narrative mechanism into an expression of sexual impulse. The apparent story engine is Médéric’s desire to be with Isadora, with her husband as the primary obstruction. But we later learn not just that Sélim and Florence are in love with Médéric but also that Charlène is in love with Sélim, revealing that their longings, too, are driving the film. The comically compressed plot of Nobody’s Hero at times suggests a kind of dream-logic—never more clearly than when elements from a paranoid Islamophobic dream of Médéric’s are directly mirrored in the actual plot. The cumulative impression is of a tenuous narrative held together by the sheer force of the characters’ incompatible, perhaps even unacknowledged desires.
The resulting dynamic is something like the urban psychogeography of contemporary France limned by the libidinous movements of a bedroom farce. Far from making light of something as serious as a terrorist attack and the concomitant social realities of Islamophobia, this juxtaposition of politics and sex demonstrates Guiraudie’s understanding of the social significance of humor. For as literary theorists have long stressed, the familiar plot structures of classic comedy, in which a couple overcomes the obstructions preventing their union, also symbolizes a movement from one kind of society into another. (Not to put too fine a point on it, such structures demonstrate how sex relates to the conception of a larger community, even a republic.) Guiraudie accepts this basic template, while also subjecting it to strange and absurd transformations. The title of his latest makes clear that in this case, his target is the conventional assumption of the male hero. Despite his somewhat schlumpy exterior, Médéric lives out a kind of heterosexual male fantasy—he’s not just irresistible to all and sundry but also capable of pleasuring a sex worker so that she forgoes payment—and this aspect of the film is treated with the ironic distance it deserves. At the same time, the desires of even the most minor characters are accorded genuine weight. Their unfulfilled longings are allowed to sting in a way that Médéric’s does not. And if we can see each person’s desire as the incipient expression of a social ideal, then we can also understand why Guiraudie’s films so often take the time to depict a variety of marginal, or at least rarely shown, social groups.
Guiraudie’s democratic vision of desire notwithstanding, however, his characters never seem entirely satisfied at the end. In Nobody’s Hero, none of the characters get what, or rather who, they want, and this disappointment permeates nearly all the director’s films, which do not offer anything like conventional comic conclusions. Indeed, the title of his 2001 masterpiece That Old Dream That Moves goes so far as to suggest that there may be an inherent contradiction in the notion of wish-fulfillment, in the very idea of an actualized dream. It’s worth noting, though, that Guiraudie’s typically abrupt endings don’t resolve the action so much as truncate it. The films point to an extension rather than a termination of their movements—as in the final shot of Nobody’s Hero, which sees a minor character running toward the camera for reasons we never discover. Taken together with the recurring theme of unfulfilled desire, this pointed irresolution stamps the film, and Guiraudie’s cinema more generally, with a kind of philosophy: a conviction that while dreams are fated to remain always just out of reach, that’s no reason to stop chasing them.