Movie Review: French nudists, WWII reenactors and a mismatched couple confront “The Bare Necessity” of life

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Here’s a screwball farce from France released with more than a few screws loose.

“The Bare Necessity” or “Perdrix” as it was titled in Europe, is a collection of eccentrics under assault by other eccentrics. But piling them all into a movie, with cute but not particularly engaging performances meant to turn this into something meaningful, amounts to an overreach for first-time feature writer-director Erwan Le Duc.

The Perdrix family is the focus, a quartet of “partridges” (the French translation of the name) living in a town in the Vosges mountains, near the German border. They’re something of a mess. But we don’t really dissect them until after the inciting incident that hurls an irritated and irritating free electron into their universe.

Juliette, played by Maud Wyler of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” is minding her own business, having pulled her car over so that she can sit on a picnic table and write in her daily journal.

Damned if a nude woman doesn’t pop up out of the woods and steal her orange BMW.

Well, an orange BMW driven by a naked woman can’t be hard to track, right? But the unflappable police captain, Pierrot Perdrix (Swann Arlaud of “By the Grace of God”) doesn’t give her much hope. His lack of urgency, when her car had everything she owned in it, is infuriating.

There are nudists, passing themselves off as “non-essentialists,” disturbing the peace there, he tells her. Stealing people’s clothes, and sometimes even their cars, is in their MO.

A guy with a “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” poster in his office might be a little too small-town philosopher to ever get in a hurry. Juliette huffs out and starts “canvasing” the town herself, using a drawing of the nude woman and her car to hunt for answers.

But having everything she owns stolen puts her into a fix, as well as a huff. She tracks the captain down at home, invites herself to dinner, and that’s where she and we are thrown in with “the wacko family” (Juliette’s words) called the Perdrixes.

Pierrot’s preternatural calm might come from his mother (screen legend Fanny Ardant), a libidinous widow who dispenses love life advice on a nightly radio show she hosts from their garage. She may have listeners, but as no one ever calls in, the family assumes the worst, with Pierrot, his highly-strung, newly-divorced single-dad brother “Juju” (Nicolas Maury) and perhaps even Juju’s tween daughter disguising their voices, calling in and seeking “help.”

Wyler’s Juliette is a manic, Katherine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” grenade tossed into the middle of the uneasy calm of this Partridge Family. She chatters, judges, backhandedly compliments and irritates the hell out of Juju. After dinner, she takes Pierrot’s phone and gets into a heated argument with his mother on her call-in show.

You just know she and this too-laid-back captain are meant for each other. If only the lazy SOB and his tiny, touchy-feely squad of gendarmes would put some effort into finding her damned car.

Well, it’s hard to get much of anything done with a vintage tank parked in front of their gendarmerie. Yes, there are WWII reenactors in France, with enthusiasts donning the uniforms of the Free French, or the Resistance, and their German oppressors — faking firefights.

No, the deadpan organizers of the reenactment assure the deadpan cops, no weapons will actually be fired. Yes, they might need a road or two blocked, maybe a police escort.

“Escorting…Nazis?”

“Oui.”

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The ingredients are here for something silly and droll, a French Wes Anderson comedy or David O. Russell satire.

I found the leads cute, in an opposites attract “chemistry” sort of way. But their occasional sparks don’t lift any of the nonsense they’re caught up in or are merely observers of. They literally stand and gawk at the spectacle of grown men playing WWII, shaking their machine guns to simulate shooting, faking deaths in combat.

Dramatic meltdowns by most of the leads — Juju is a wildlife biologist given to cursing out school kids who don’t pay attention to his wetsuited lectures in a local pond, Pierrot finally loses his cool at Juliette’s insults — point to a more fractious and fun movie that might have been.

Ardant is generally wasted, husky radio voice notwithstanding. The whole nudists getting down to the “bare necessities of life” thread is a non-starter. And a single profundity in the dialogue isn’t much to show for a 100 minute movie.

“My mother used to say, ‘Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.'”

As “twee” is a word often used to describe Wes Anderson’s comedies, it’s worth pointing out to Monsieur Le Duc how very difficult that tone is to achieve. He doesn’t get down to the bare necessity of that here.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, profanity

Cast: Swann Arlaud, Maud Wyler, Nicolas Maury and Fanny Ardant.

Credits: A Kino Lorber release.

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