A conceptual artist at the end of his tether finds a new lease on life when he meets a young admirer in Ulysses & Mona (Ulysse & Mona), the latest feature from French indie auteur Sebastien Betbeder (2 Autumns, 3 Winters). Completely offbeat yet emotionally effective in its depiction of a lonely man at death’s door trying to make amends with the world, this deadpan dramedy-cum-road movie had its world premiere in Toronto, where it could land a few pickups outside of its homeland.
Eric Cantona, the infamous “King Eric” of Manchester United who switched to acting in the late 1990s, stars as Ulysses, a major French artist who disappeared from the public eye several years ago following a show at the Pompidou Center in Paris. Holed up in a crumbling chateau with little to do but play tennis by himself, and completely estranged from both his wife (Marie Vialle) and his son (Nicolas Avinee), Ulysses has few viable hopes for the future — a sentiment that soon becomes a bleak reality when he’s diagnosed with brain cancer.
A touching, deadpan portrait of the artist as a disheveled Frenchman.
Enter Mona (the excellent Manal Issa), a young fan of Ulysses’ work who, through the encouragement of a fellow art student (Quentin Dolmaire), decides to seek out her idol at his remote country abode. Although it takes some time for Ulysses to warm up to the uninvited guest, he eventually heads out with Mona on a road trip, paying visits to a handful of people — his brother, his ex, his son — that he’s wronged in the past.
With a style and tone reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers comes most to mind), the film follows the unlikely pair as they drive across rural France and make several stops, each resulting in an incident that mixes humor with something more sad and desperate. A sequence set at a gas station is definitely a standout, with Mona getting caught up in an armed robbery that becomes a total and hilarious misfire. Another scene, where Ulysses confronts the son he abandoned long ago, is moving in its simplicity, revealing Betbeder’s talent here for saying a lot with very little.
Spare in design, with DP Roman Le Bonniec shooting in the Academy ratio in what feels like a half-dozen locations, the story digresses at points yet sticks to its theme of a man coming to terms with himself through the help of an improbable guardian angel. It’s not quite clear what Mona is hoping to get out of their relationship — she tries to hit on Ulysses at one point, but that backfires — and in the end she winds up just going along for the ride, proving to be the wise and willing friend that Ulysses desperately needs.
Like Betbeder’s previous films, there’s a quirky quality to the dialogue here that takes some getting used to, although the two leads are good enough to make it work. Cantona delivers his lines with his standard Marseillais accent, barely moving when he speaks as if to better convey the paralysis of his character. Issa, who was discovered in the 2015 film Parisienne and played a role in Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, is perfect here as a girl who seeks out her favorite artist for inspiration, only to become the person that inspires him to keep going.
Production company: Envie de Tempete Productions
Cast: Eric Cantona, Manal Issa, Quentin Dolmaire, Marie Vialle, Micha Lescot, Jean-Luc Vincent
Director-screenwriter: Sebastien Betbeder
Producer: Frederic Dubreuil
Director of photography: Romain Le Bonniec
Production designer: Nicolas Trabaud
Costume designer: Anne Billette
Editor: Celine Canard
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)