Cinephiles love to quote Roberto Rossellini, after his viewing of Chaplin’s oft-maligned late work A King in New York: “This is the film of a free man.” Alain Guiraudie, among the more accomplished French filmmakers of this century, is one of few who directs with that similar sense of freedom––which is not to say he’s on the same canonical level as Chaplin, or most other auteurs, where that line is invoked. Although there are many ways one can interpret the adjective “free,” Guiraudie’s work seems very related to his unconscious, manifesting the eclectic amorous desires that bubble up from there, in strange combinations that push the boundaries of queer sexuality ever further. And there’s also the sense that audience and industry reaction––especially after Stranger By the Lake brought him wider attention a decade ago––is not something that makes him second guess his natural instincts.
In Nobody’s Hero that tendency towards freedom—or towards the unvarnished, liberated creativity we know from him—culminates in something like a mess. But it remains provocative, effervescent work with a slowly emerging humanist undertow. It features as much deadpan eccentricity and careening plot turns as Staying Vertical––which disappointed many new fans he garnered after Stranger by the Lake––but somehow feels more overstuffed than that film, more concerned to prod the current French zeitgeist, which it achieves with varying success.
One natural reason: where Guiraudie chose to film Nobody’s Hero after a career largely concerned with France’s rural backwaters. It is set in Clermont-Ferrand, located at the exact center of the country, selected to represent a median, archetypal sense of the nation: metropolitan, but still somewhat provincial; notable for culture (it hosts one of the world’s biggest short film festivals) and its creative economy, but with sleepy suburbia at its outskirts. And as has been prevalent in mainland Europe over the past decade, contending with an Islamophobic backlash against its Middle Eastern communities.
Médéric (Jean-Charles Clichet), another of the lovably dumpy middle-aged schlubs Guiraudie prefers to center his plots on, is living an apathetic life as a software developer in the city, with his recreation coming from his urban jogging route and trysts with sex workers. Isadora (Noémie Lvovsky, who also played the madam in House of Tolerance) is his latest obsession, whom he spots on a particularly scenic part of his exercise circuit; then, their intimacy gives a literal definition of the term coitus interruptus, when her husband and pimp storms in to take her home, warning of a terrorist attack engulfing the city. This is a strong dramatic trigger, showing all of Guiraudie’s impish way of seeing; especially warming is viewing Clichet and Lvovsky’s roiling bodies in an honest erotic connection, so different to the sanitized sex scenes we often see on film.
The dynamic between an oft-solitary and alienated individual, and a scheming sex worker-pimp couple, evokes Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, adapted of course from its French source of Renoir’s La Chienne. But the overall conflict, rather than a moralistic one of classic noir, is as ever about desire, sexual fluidity, and—as in Guiraudie’s earlier The King of Escape—how the “closet” might still work as gay life has been assimilated into the mainstream.
The other key plot strand concerns Selim (Iliès Kadri), a young homeless Muslim seen looking for shelter on the night of the attack near Médéric’s apartment block––he and his neighbors are definitely suspicious, though they appear to show him a kind of liberal tolerance, if only to reassure themselves they’re not racist. Selim’s appearance is also where the film’s intentional farcicality starts to emerge: across the film’s first act he is constantly in and out of the various flats or sleeping in the landing, his presence making itself known often in a comic reverse shot.
Although Isadora doesn’t appear in this plotline initially, she eventually returns to Médéric’s life, enwrapping him and his now-lodger Selim in an unlikely love triangle. Rather than calmly unveiling the story, Guiraudie is more interested in arranging his characters in odd sexual and criminal combinations, where each sequence feels like an attempt to top the uncanniness and alarm factor of the last. To twist the common literary-critical saying, Nobody’s Hero is indeed three characters in search of a story, but not an author, whose conviction in his ideas and unique method of shaping a film still marks him as un vrai original.
Nobody’s Hero premiered at the 2022 Berlinale.