Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Tomato Man Cometh

There aren't too many films I would recommend for a bucolic escape from city life, but The Grocer's Son is certainly one of them. Directed by Eric Guirado with a keen eye to showing the contrasts between urban and rural lifestyles, The Grocer's Son depicts the emotional transformation of 30-year-old Antoine from a detached, bored and dispassionate urbanite into a maturing man who rediscovers his roots during a family emergency.

Like many young men, Antoine couldn't wait to leave the small town in Provence where his parents run the general store (and his father deliveries groceries to outlying homes using the family's van). Living in a dumpy apartment where most of his possessions have never even been unpacked, he works as a waiter and occasionally hangs out with his friend Hassan. Although Antoine has a quiet crush on his neighbor Claire (who is cramming for her entrance exams to a school in Spain), he hasn't gotten up the nerve to make a move.

When Antoine's father ends up in the hospital, the family must regroup and figure out how to look after the father while keeping the business afloat. After quitting his job at the restaurant, Antoine decides to return home to help out his mother. Bringing Claire (the delightful Clotilde Hesme) with him on the pretext that a change in environment might help her with her studies, he returns home to Provence.

Unfortunately, most of the small family-owned businesses in his town have been bought out by foreign investors. As Antoine takes over his father's grocery route, he encounters many people who knew him when he was a young boy, but who are now showing signs of senility and increased infirmity. "This place smells of death," he groans.

Guirado's film follows Antoine's development over the course of the summer, gently exploring the nooks and crannies of dysfunctional family relationships, exposing a long-lasting brotherly feud, and showing the effect of Antoine's brusque personality on the people he encounters. The transformation from arrogant schmuck to a young man who learns that the gift of giving is also the gift of learning how to receive help from others is a slow and quiet one. Whether helping the increasingly confused Pere Clement (Paul Crauchet) with his chickens or trying to argue with a deaf client who can never figure out what the price of goods is, Nicolas Cazale's sexy, brooding Antoine eventually awakens to the possibility of resuming a country life.

Sparring with the cantankerous Lucienne (Liliane Rovere) -- "Your hair is red today -- are you expecting a storm?" -- he slowly comes to appreciate the lonely needs and quirky temperaments of aging eccentrics whose only source of human contact is the arrival of their traveling grocer. With strong supporting performances from Jeanne Goupil (Antoine's mother), Daniel Duval (Antoine's father) and Stephan Guerin Tillie (Antoine's brother), Guirardo has fashioned a very tender and loving film in which the charms of the elderly slowly break through Antoine's emotional armor and light a fire of fondness in his heart.

It's rare that current events would affect how one views such an intimate and personal film as The Grocer's Son. Nevertheless, the rising price of gas keeps nagging at the back of the viewer's mind as Antoine drives his family's grocery van back and forth across the hills of Provence to deliver three tomatoes to one widow and some flour to another (with no appreciable profit margin). While the sheer physical beauty of the region steals the show, Nicolas Cazale ain't exactly hard on the eyes, either.

No comments: