Road to Nowhere

The worst thing about French director Manuel Poirier's Western, which was nominated for multiple Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, is its title. Despite the strained attempts of the movie's production notes to convince us of some sort of a connection between Poirier's delightful, picaresque "adventure" and the traditional Hollywood Western, the film couldn't feel or work less like one. The best reason I can come up with for the title is the fact that the movie takes place in Brittany, on the west coast of France. In truth, after an ingenious and complicated setup, the film (in French with English subtitles) follows the classic pattern of the road film, not a Western.

Paco (Sergi Lopez) is a traveling shoe salesman from Catalonia. When we first meet him, he seems a perfectly uptight petit bourgeois: clean-shaven, well-dressed, and repressed. But when he spies a pretty girl hitchhiking, he can't resist stopping to pick her up, even though it's against company rules. Before he knows what hit him, the girl turns down the ride (she's actually heading in another direction) and shoves another hitchhiker, a scrawny little Russian emigre named Nino (Sacha Bourdo), into Paco's car. No sooner does Paco step out of the vehicle to check a suspicious noise Nino claims to have heard when Nino hops into the driver's seat and absconds with all of Paco's worldly possessions.

What appears to be the worst development in Paco's life quickly turns into the best: He looks so forlorn by the roadside that the lovely Marinette (Elisabeth Vitali) collects him and takes him home. He soon loses his job but gains Marinette's love.

Then one day he spots Nino on the street. Giving chase and collaring the little car thief, he loses his temper and beats Nino so badly that the latter winds up being hospitalized. Paco is immediately stricken with guilt, prompting him to visit Nino in the hospital. Eventually he recovers his belongings but learns that his car is long gone. Touched by Nino's romantic explanation of why he stole the vehicle, Paco strikes up an unlikely friendship with him.

When Marinette insists that she and Paco separate for three weeks to test the depth of their new love, Paco decides to kill the time by bumming around Brittany with Nino. Their exploits on the road form the body of the movie. As in numerous buddy pictures, the burly Paco and the undersized Nino form a close, if contentious, Mutt-and-Jeff relationship, even through Paco, seeing little romance in unnecessary hardship, constantly threatens to leave. Soon, however, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their road movies, tension develops between the pair over women. Nino, the aching romantic, desperately longs for female companionship, both sexual and emotional; Paco, whose only desire is to reunite with Marinette, has no real interest in other women. Predictably, every woman Nino tries to make time with dumps him for Paco. In a handful of lengthy episodes, they bounce around the countryside trying to rectify this seemingly horrible injustice.

Poirier presents these largely comic misadventures with a relaxed, discursive style. There are moments when we wonder whether the characters, and the film, are ever going to get anywhere. One of the movie's jokes (one that won't be apparent to anyone who has neither been to Brittany nor read up on the film's background) is that Paco and Nino's entire trip never takes them more than ten miles from where they started. But as is so often the case with a road movie, the geographical journey functions as a metaphor for another kind of journey; in this instance it concerns social class. As the film progresses the two buddies slowly switch places: Paco becomes more and more an unattached vagrant, living day to day, while Nino heads in the direction of middle-class stability.

Although Western doesn't come close to the sort of breakthrough cinema that was commonplace in France 30 and 40 years ago, it's a lot richer and more thoughtful than the fluff that dominated the French film industry in the Seventies and Eighties.

Western.
Directed by Manuel Poirier. Written by Jean-Francois Goyet and Manuel Poirier. Starring Sergi Lopez, Sacha Bourdo, and Elisabeth Vitali.

 
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