Mammuth, Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern, 92 mins (PG)

A meat-processing worker mounts his bike in search of his pension; but the real story is that, although Gérard Depardieu has become porky, his career is still in good shape

Gérard Depardieu is one of modern cinema's foremost "sacred monsters" – but, for years, his career has been more monstrous than sacred.

In the early Nineties, he could still be relied on to bulk out prestige adaptations of Balzac and Zola. But, perhaps for fear of becoming an establishment totem, Depardieu has spent much of his time since then taking the international dollar as a jobbing jolly Frenchman, from his crowd-pleasing turn as Obélix the Gaul to Hollywood hack jobs like 102 Dalmatians (as Jean-Pierre Le Pelt, if you please).

Amid this concerted campaign to devalue his brand, Depardieu will occasionally chalk up a performance that proves he can still be magnificent when he deigns to stretch himself. In two weeks' time, you can see his affable and rather touching turn in François Ozon's Potiche, as an ageing communist romancing Catherine Deneuve. His superb performance in The Singer (2006) was all but an overt self-portrait – a hard-bitten crooner on the town-hall circuit, retaining his dignity despite accusations of being ringard, or tacky. "You're only tacky if you've lasted," says his character – Depardieu's own profession of faith as a survivor.

Now here's another self-portrait of sorts. Mammuth is a monument to the magnificence of Depardieu's ruin – and his occasional on-screen resurrection. The star plays Serge Pilardosse, a greasy-locked pork-processing worker who hasn't achieved much, but who can count on the support of his sharp-tongued but loving wife (Yolande Moreau). Serge doesn't have any friends – when he retires, his co-workers turn up for a hilariously joyless farewell drink, chomping crisps through the boss's by-rote speech. He also has few interests, although he takes pride in his knowledge of pork products – occasioning a prickly face-off with a supermarket charcuterie assistant (a nicely sullen turn by one of the film's two writer-directors, Gustave Kervern).

It emerges that Serge has never gathered the paperwork required to draw a pension, so he sets off on his long neglected Mammuth motorcycle (below) to find his documents. That involves meetings with some loathsome people – petty officials, a sneering nightclub bouncer – and some agreeably eccentric ones, notably a musical gravedigger. The film is a testament to strength of character, and a condemnation of the indignity of labour – themes beloved of directors Benoît Delépine and Kervern (aka "de Kervern"), French TV satirists who have also made a handful of brittle anarchist comedies, most recently the riotous screw-the-system story Louise-Michel.

Once he's on the road, Serge's romantic back story emerges – as a youth, he lost the love of his life in a bike crash. She eerily materialises now and then, played by the rarely sighted Isabelle Adjani, here resembling a well-preserved Gallic cousin to Morticia Addams.

Like all Delépine-Kervern films, this one rolls along episodically in a way that suggests the duo are making it up as they go along. Mammuth feels as if it's headed somewhere until Serge meets his niece – played by real-life outsider artist Miss Ming, a specialist in creepy doll-part bricolage. Her impassive, child-like delivery puts the film on a slower, sweeter footing, imparting a neo-hippie vagueness to the proceedings. With its high-contrast pastel-toned colour photography, Mammuth harks back to late-Sixties road quest movies, even culminating in the unnerving sight of Depardieu in a billowing kaftan.

The mock-beatific stuff is neither here nor there: the film really scores when it's scabrous. There's a nice sequence in which Serge meets a vampish con artist (silky-voiced Anna Mouglalis), and an outrageous, unsettling sight gag about what happens when two flabby male cousins get together after decades apart. It's not something that bears looking at, but Depardieu's expression, and his weary "Oh la la ..." are priceless.

As for filling the screen, when Serge strips off to bathe in a river, it's like witnessing some ancient hippo god in its primeval splendour. The film-makers also delight in extreme close-ups in which their star's bag-o'-spuds physiognomy sprawls across the screen, his bifurcated nose pointing east and west simultaneously.

Depardieu was once one of European cinema's great romantics, France's definitive bit of on-screen rough. These days, he likes to send himself up with a total lack of vanity, but rarely this brazenly. Mammuth is his announcement to the world that he doesn't give a toss what we think of him; it's one thing to be ringard, here he's a walking disgrace, and proud of it. His Serge is at first a shambling, clueless lunk who's screwed up his life – and perhaps Depardieu's picture of how he himself might have ended up if he hadn't got hooked on acting. But the character's final triumph is also the actor's. Mammuth is too soft-centred to be Delépine and Kervern at their best (for that, seek out their demented Aaltra, a road movie with wheelchairs). But the film is a raucously anti-narcissistic triumph for its star, who shows that there's still a magnificent cheval de guerre lying dormant inside the ragged old pantomime horse.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney delves into Californian conceptual sex comedy with Gregg Araki's Kaboom

Film Choice

The joy of goats is celebrated in Michel-angelo Frammartino's unclassifiably brilliant Le Quattro Volte - a documentary/comedy reverie on life, death, nature and the splendours of Calabria – all this and the greatest sight gag of recent years....And it's the Dude's delight at London's BFI Southbank, with a two-month retrospective of Hollywood's most laid-back, Jeff Bridges.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?