Existentialism (the belief that the individual gives meaning to life) is a hard concept to depict in film. Mostly because of its theoretical or silent nature it is rather boring. Director/screenwriter Bruno Podalydès (Park Benches) attempts to create a film that is centered around a man having some sort of midlife inner discussion/dilemma. A difficult proposition. Difficult to create something that people can grab a hold of and stay interested in. A man alone going on a trip of self-discovery is not something that leaps off the page and make studios want to give up money to make.
Michel (Bruno Podalydès – Paris, je t’aime) is a 50-year-old white man who is going through an existential crisis. Ever since he read the less famous novel of Antoine de Saint-Exupery called Night Flight Michel has dreamed about being an airmail pilot that makes dangerous runs. He as it in his head that he will finally learn what kind of man he truly is only if he does this. The closest he gets to this is when he has his leather jacket on with his white scarf flapping in the wind as he drives home to his comfortable suburban home on his scooter. It is a nice middle class home in which he has decorated the walls with airmail memorabilia.
At work his boss (Denis Podalydès – The Da Vinci Code, Caché) has awoken the beast inside of him by asking Michel to think in palindromes. This leads him to think of a kayak because the shell of the kayak looks like a plane wing. Michel orders one and tries to keep it a secret from his wife (Sandrine Kiberlain – The Apartment, The Women on the 6th Floor) as he gets in it and imagines going on adventures. Truth is that his wife knows full well about the kayak and encourages him to go on a trip down the picturesque waters of Burgundy.
At times light while others it is rather deep, the film has a great and dreamlike look to it. As Michel floats down the river and everything looks beautiful. The way it looks and the dialogue harkens back to another time in film history. It is light and yet still has a bittersweet tone to it.
This is not as dry as I have made it seem. There are some laughs to be found. Most of them involve laughing at a middle aged white man doing silly things and how over-prepared he is for his eventual trip in the kayak. The problem with the attempts at humour is that many are so awkward, as awkward as Michel himself, that you don’t just feel right laughing at them.
Then there is the whole lack of connection between the intentions of the film and how the lead character behaves. He dreams of leaving his comfortable life for adventures and a life on the edge and then after he embarks on his trip all he does is seduce women and laze about drinking and telling lies to his wife. It is hard to invest yourself in a film and character who seems so uninterested in his own life and is incapable of fully committing to changing it. A big ask by the director/screenwriter/actor.
What does elevate the film is the recognizable human behaviour involved. We can all recognize stuff Michel is feeling and doing and relate to it. We have all felt at one time or another that we are stuck in our lives and want more. Routine is our security blanket while at the same time the bane of our existences. We all strive for the freedom Michel craves and most of us, like him, don’t know how to achieve it. Happiness…something we all strive for and are not quite sure what it is exactly.