Following on the heels of Roselyne and the Lions, a three-hour movie about the lives of lion tamers in France and Germany, I figured Beineix was on his “big animals” kick and decided to try elephants next.
Thank goodness I was wrong. In fact, Beineix tones down his color palette, shrinks his larger-than-life characters, and tells a lighthearted road-trip story instead.
Three for the Road
From the Press Release
Tony is a proud urban artist in a Paris suburb. He paints graffiti, but he also has a portfolio of his work that, held hostage, launches his story arc out into the countryside. Some thugs threaten to destroy his portfolio unless he drives a van full of “gnomes” to Grenoble. (We don’t know what’s inside the gnomes but I’m guessing it’s MacGuffins.)
Tony has a sidekick, Jockey, a twelve-year-old kid who has never left the city. Jockey’s dad has a heart attack one night, and a nurse comes to attend. Her name is Gloria and she takes Tony’s heart when she leaves. Clueless Tony tries to impress her with graffiti on her building, and with falsely reporting a medical emergency.
Luckily he has to go make that delivery. He and jockey drive the truck for a day or so, but soon they’re bored and Tony can’t stop thinking about Gloria. They steal a car and change directions (Gloria is now in Tolouse), only to find that there’s an old man in the back seat who had been asleep.
Leon (Yves Montand) rounds out the trio of mismatched buddies as they set off in search of their own personal blisses. Tony wants to find his nurse. Jockey wants to see real snow on a mountain. And Leon wants to find that place called Island of the Pachyderms where he fell in love with that girl all those years ago.
The setup is ideal for a dramatist to illustrate Man at three stages of life. Leon is the steady tenor, Tony is the driving melody, and Jockey is the hyperactive descant — at least that’s what I hoped to see from this scenario.
Jockey is just at the cusp of puberty; Tony is of marrying age, and Leon is ready to die. They are all headstrong in their own way; the movie pumps testosterone in healthy but non-freakish doses. There might be something in the screenplay about what drives us — love from our youth, the promise of a kiss, the anticipation of a first-time experience. But Island of the Pachyderms doesn’t play like a very deep movie. It’s a sentimental buddy picture, and not enough more.
For some, “sentimental” may be an understatement. The thirteen year old is too hip and funny, the old man just a smidge too wise, and Tony just a little too headstrong. They verge on caricatures, but at least it is in service of camaraderie. For me, it wasn’t too much but it might be for you.
The “road trip” format is a structure that allows lots of time for dialogue. In fact, Island of the Pachyderms could be a play. The characters are always moving, searching, meeting tangential characters, and talking. Beineix often puts them in the great outdoors, walking through forests, making their way across a wide screen of hay bales, or looking out into the water. Leon says that nobody shouts anymore, meaning we’re too urban, we never test our voices against the entire world, only against the human world. Lest you dismiss what Leon has to say, Beineix even lets him walk on water (a nice gesture for Montand in his farewell role).
There is a surprising twist toward the end involving Leon, the old man. It makes for a nice bit of dramatic irony, but the gesture seems out of proportion with the rest of the movie; the size of the action is too big for the size of the emotion behind it. Unfortunately, it’s the first crack in the crumbling ice. The three separate journeys start to wrap up, and those of us looking for a grand theme to unite the stories begin to lose hope.
The final shot of a cold, open, rocky mountain stands in stark contrast to the opening shot of concrete, rails, and asphalt; but it doesn’t mean anything except that two urban kids got to see the countryside. The characters have achieved their individual goals, but they haven’t really grown. The film proves to be a melody and not a chord; it has a strong arc but weak depth.
Island of the Pachyderms marks a new style in Beineix’s career, and it’s refreshing to see him try something new — especially since the title seems to suggest a sequel to Roselyne and the Lions. I just wish he had capitalized more on the fertile situations immanent in the script.