Jérémie Renier’s performance as a wounded solider returning to civilian life in Paris is the highlight of Le Grand Homme, a drab story of friendship and loyalty between two men. Under Sarah Leonor’s lacklustre direction and inability to inject any real drama into the narrative, many key scenes rings hollow and flat. And an excessive number of long, panning shots suck the energy from the film. It’s a missed opportunity to explore the fate of soldiers after they have completed an often difficult and dangerous tour of duty and left the army – a theme not often examined by modern French cinema and even less by a female director.
Renier is Hamilton, a Légionnaire who is badly wounded while in action in Afghanistan. His fellow soldier Markov (an intense, low-key performance from Russian actor Surho Sugaipov) disobey’s army rules and carries his friend to safety. Markov leaves the foreign legion without the French citizenship given to other Legionnaires and is unable to find work. He also decides to look after his young son Khadji (Ramzan Idiev) who he had left with family friends during his absence. As a sign of his gratitude, Hamilton gives Markov his French work papers so he can find a job. But circumstances force Hamilton to step in and look after Khadji after his father’s disappearance.
Leonor based Le Grand Homme on the poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, said to be the world’s oldest surviving work of literature. It tells how a man tragically loses his best friend and goes on a journey to find the secret of immortality. From such lofty source material Leonor has muddied the waters with a detour into unrelated territory. True she asks relevant questions such as what it means to be a man in society today and gives some much needed attention to the plight of war refugees and their treatment by French officialdom. But there is an emotional detatchment which removes any true empathy for the characters. And Leonor seems to suggest that Hamilton’s journey ends with his role as a father – perhaps his own shot at immortality. But if fatherhood is essential to becoming a great man, is the same true of motherhood?
At 33-years-of-age, Renier is already veteran of some fifty films covering characters ranging from popular singer Claude Francois in the biopic Cloclo to a gambling, ex-cop in La Confrerie des Larmes (The Brotherhood of Tears). As Hamilton he is superb as the tough, macho soldier whose thoughts go no deeper than retaining a level of physical perfection and having a good time when out of uniform. When confronted with the reality of Khadji’s situation, his first reaction is anger as he struggles to reconcile his duty to Markov with a life governed by strict rules and regulations. Sugaipov and Idiev were both hired after auditioning for Leonor on Skype. Both give remarkable performances especially Sugaipov whose lack of fluent French only adds to his mystery.
Leonor’s acclaimed last film Au Voleur (A Real Life) was nominated for several awards including the Golden Leopard at the 2009 Locarno film festival. Le Grand Homme has so far not created the same buzz.