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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale 

Alain Guiraudie can genuinely lay claim to being France’s most consistently eccentric director. He’s best known for Stranger by the Lake, a moody, pared-down drama about a serial killer working a gay cruising site. But it’s far from typical for a director whose works are often dream-like or couched in a register of pure fantasy (the hallucinatory No Rest For the Brave, the neo-mediaeval parallel world of Time Has Come). Guiraudie’s films are often classified as LGBTQ+ cinema, although they are determinedly polysexual in their depictions of desire – more often than not, the most devoutly lusted-after characters in his films are stout older men.

Nobody’s Hero is altogether Guiraudian in tone – in its mixture of flippancy and deadpan mock-seriousness – but it’s something of a departure, readable as a relatively straightforward satirical statement about the tensions in contemporary France. The French title is Viens, je t’emmène – ‘Come on, I’ll take you there’ – although it’s far from clear who’s taking whom and where.

The setting is present-day Clermont-Ferrand and the hero is Médéric (Jean-Charles Clichet), a software engineer and somewhat hapless middle-aged schlub. While out jogging, he spots Isadora (Noémie Lvovsky), a middle-aged sex worker, and falls for her on the spot: he approaches her for sex but insists that, since it’s a case of true passion, he deserves a freebie. Implausibly, she agrees and grants him a rendezvous at a seedy hotel where a Black teenager called Charlène (Miveck Packa) works as an intern, hoping to get into the hospitality trade.          

Médéric and Isadora’s full-on, somewhat graphic hotel session is interrupted by news of a terrorist attack in the city. Médéric goes home to find a young homeless Arab man, Selim (Ilies Kadri), requesting shelter. He lets him into his block of flats, although he suspects that Selim could be the bomber – as do other North African youths in the area, and Médéric’s neighbours, including an Islamic couple, Mr and Mrs El Aaoui.

As the characters’ fates intertwine, and Médéric’s life gets ever more complicated, the film builds up a head of manic, but inexorably logical farce that suggests an odd merging of Buñuel and Joe Orton. The film is particularly provocative in reframing stereotypical preconceptions of, and anxieties about, race and Islam that clearly touch a nerve in contemporary France. Guiraudie presses the viewer’s buttons in getting us to suspect, like Médéric, that Selim is up to no good.

Jean-Charles Clichet in Nobody's Hero (2022)
Jean-Charles Clichet in Nobody's Hero (2022)
© Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

It’s a tactic that plays with Islamophobia in a way that these days would be considered reckless in most cinemas. You can’t imagine US or UK films taking this route, whereas another film seen in 2022’s Berlinale, Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini, plays with similar ideas: its cabaret-crooner protagonist is first seen muttering imprecations at passing Muslims, only to find his house in Italy becoming an encampment for Syrian migrants. But if we follow Guiraudie’s line of humour (which is perhaps what the French title is suggesting), he is clearly out to flout expectations: Selim’s most fervent defender will turn out to be the resident gun nut among Médéric’s neighbours.

Meanwhile, Guiraudie subverts sexual expectations with his usual brio, in a way that irresistibly recalls that veteran (and altogether more heteronormative) French provocateur Bertrand Blier. A running gag is that the averagely unprepossessing Médéric seems to be regarded widely as an irresistible hot number: his boss Florence (played by Doria Tillier, an increasingly popular French screen presence who very much embodies imposing glamour) is forever making advances to Médéric, who consistently turns her down. But then Médéric at one point claims he’s gay: and within the logic of Guiraudie’s films, it may be that he actually is gay at that moment, just because the script, or the director’s whim, requires him to be.

Some viewers may bristle at a film that is so utterly flippant about serious themes but then, following uncomfortable ideas to their most preposterous and counterintuitive consequences is a Guiraudie trademark. He also has fun in his casting: this is the first time he has worked with an actor who will be immediately recognisable to French cinemagoers.

Noémie Lvovsky was a highly rated director before embarking on a parallel career as a character actor, often in comic roles, for directors including Corsini, Bertrand Bonello and herself. Here she proves more than game for a laugh, and for outrage: her Isadora is a vivid comic presence, and her full-on sex with Médéric adds another taboo-busting factor to the film, depicting older sexuality with wry and boisterous mischief.