After one argument too many, middle-class Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) splits with her jazz musician husband André (Guy Marchand) to take up with farmers' boy, common thief and general lad-about-town Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). Maurice Pialat's 1980 drama Loulou might initially seem the stuff of simplicity - a study in social movement, presented as a series of bust-ups and bunk-ups - but it displays a real feel for cafe and street life, and the eruptions of passion it captures are astonishingly vivid. If its interests are physical rather than intellectual, it's because Pialat evidently takes the side of Loulou's honest brute force over André's passive-aggression. As such, the film turns out to be a genuine rarity: the work of a smart director making a sincere attempt, through Depardieu's oafishly lovable moptop, to understand rather than be snide about the type of non-smart guy some girls want to spend their evenings with.
To some extent, it's Huppert's film: her Nelly is the film's emotional fulcrum, and given the gleaming, Garbo-like iceberg the actress has become these past two decades, it's a nostalgic pleasure to see her back in the days when she was still allowed to smile, laugh and have non-masochistic sex on screen. Yet there's a reason the title isn't Nelly (or Whoa, Nelly!): Depardieu clubs every scene he's in over the head and carries it off over his shoulder, a force of nature apparently acting less than being. Given his physicality, the fit he makes with Pialat's cinema comes as no surprise, but for those of us raised on the jovial gastronome Depardieu - Hollywood's idea of Frenchness - it's still a shock to witness the actor as unvarnished youth. Completing a trio of excellent lead performances, Marchand is wonderfully wormy as the increasingly pathetic saxophonist, refusing even once to ask for the audience's sympathies. A self-absorbed, deeply hypocritical figure who's more of a brute than the brute he accuses Loulou of being, it's somehow fitting that André should finally be left to blow his own horn.
Loulou is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.