Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Phillipe Le Guay
Stars: Francois Cluzet, Gregory Gadebois, Toby Jones, Arthur Dupont, Phillipe Rebbot, Patrick d’Assumcao, Lucie Muratet, Daphne Dumons, Pili Groyne, Julie Ann Roth.
This French comedy/drama tells of a town of struggling farmers who prepare to strip off and pose nude for a photo shoot. If this brief synopsis makes it seem like a Gallic variation on both The Full Monty and Calendar Girls you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
The film is set in Mele sur Sarthe, a small farming community in Normandy. With the price of both dairy products and meat falling, local farmers are doing it tough and facing financial ruin, but attempts to bring relief from local government authorities seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The local mayor Balbuzard (played by Francois Cluzet, from the charming The Intouchables, etc) has tried hard to make things a little better for his constituents by arranging strike action. He has dedicated most of his time to working for his people, so much so that his frustrated wife up and left him years ago.
It is while staging a mass protest by blocking a main highway and burning hay bales that Balbuzard and the townsfolk catch the attention of passing American photographer Newman (Toby Jones, recently seen in Journey’s End, etc), a Spencer Tunick-like artist who specialises in photographing tastefully posed groups of nudes. Balbuzard and Newman come to an arrangement, hoping that having the villagers photographed in the nude may heighten awareness of their plight. His idea though divides the community and exposes their small-minded mentality, pettiness and selfish attitudes. And Newman has set his sights on a picturesque field for the shoot.
But personal issues, prejudices, past histories and personal beliefs begin to conspire to sabotage the project. Local hot tempered and jealous butcher Roger (Gregory Gadebois, from Farewell My Queen, etc) does not want his wife curvaceous Gisele (Lucie Muratet), a former beauty queen, to pose nude, and his overreaction threatens to derail the shoot. Two neighbouring farmers Eugene (Phillipe Rebbot, the 2016 comedy A Bun In The Oven, etc) and Maurice (Patrick d’Assumcao, from the homoerotic thriller Stranger By The Lake, etc) squabble over ownership of the field in question. Cyclist and local hero Vincent (Arthur Dupont, from Haute Cuisine, etc) is the son of the town’s former photographer, but he is preparing to close up the family shop and move away, until he finds romance with Charlotte (Daphne Dumons), who works in the local cheese factory.
Normandy Nude has been directed by Phillipe Le Guay (The Women On The 6th Floor, etc), who co-wrote the script with Victoria Redos (The Bellier Family, etc, which was a huge hit at the box office a couple of years ago) and veteran writer Olivier Dazat (Asterix At The Olympic Games, etc). It is obvious that Le Guay feels affection for these quirky characters and their foibles, and he superbly captures the rhythms and pace of small-town life and suffuses the material with some gentle touches of humour. He also captures the politics of life in a small town as well as the politics of food.
There is some inviting cinematography from Jean Claude Larrieau (The Bookshop, etc) which steeps us in the picturesque countryside and gives the film a nice surface gloss. The delightful locations lend an authenticity to the material.
The ensemble cast flesh out the characters, but it is Cluzet’s Balbuzard who provides the film with a central focus. Cluzet has a genial and affable presence who has charm to spare, although he tends to be typecast here as the well-meaning Balbuzard. Cluzet looks vaguely like a Gallic Dustin Hoffman, and has a similar hangdog expression as well as an intensity and conviction that he always brings to his roles.
However, there are a few missteps along the way. The film is narrated by Chloe (newcomer Pili Groyne, from Two Days, One Night, etc), the teenaged daughter of a Parisian businessman who has moved to the countryside for a sea change, but finds it hard to enjoy his situation. She is only a secondary character who has little impact on the story, so it seems like rather a strange creative choice. The script also has plenty of narrative strands and subplots that it seems episodic at times. The pacing is a little uneven, and there are even a few scenes that fall flat and feel forced.
Normandy Nude had the potential to be a real crowd-pleaser, but it is let down by some lazy creative decisions, some cliched writing, and a cluttered, too busy narrative.