The title Robust refers to the character of its female lead as much as her physicality. Deborah Lukumuena plays Aissa, a security guard assigned to look after a famous movie star whose regular handler is on leave. The famous movie star in question is Gérard Depardieu, who plays (*checks notes*) George.
Barely a pseudonym, George is a cantankerous, aging, out of shape actor, who frequently bails on his films and rehearsals and other commitments. A BoJack Horseman of comfort eating, he rattles around in his massive home, pretty much devoid of human contact. The sole occasion where he meets someone not trying to hound him about work, it’s when gets a visitation weekend with his kid, and actually lightens up for once. He nightly takes panic attacks, which he is convinced are cardiac incidents, and phones his doctor in the middle of the night, probably just to hear a human voice.
Throwing his fragility into contrast is Aissa. She shows up, 50 years his junior, self-assured, competent, organised, and self-possessed. A wrestling champ, she is excelling as an athlete at the same time as taking pride in her work, eager to overcome the sexism in the industry to get high-profile security assignments to politicians and government officials. Where he is flighty, she is steady. Where he is mercurial, she is constant. Where he is irritable, she is patient.
Despite the age difference, she is more like a parent to him, organising his life, running his lines with him, and chiding him into behaving responsibily. And despite their differences as people, they begin to enjoy one another’s company. Gérard – I mean George – who can’t stand anyone’s company for very long without slipping out the patio doors and running away, asks her to stay longer, and makes up excuses why he needs her. She too finds that she likes this bear-like manchild, admiring the passion in his changeable moods rather than put off by them. His vulnerability and loneliness elicits from her kindness without pity, a sincere willingness to share time and herself with someone missing real connection.
The dynamic of aging white guy/young black woman in his employment is one I’ve found to be problematic in other films, but here I think it works. The power dynamic feels like it has a lot more symmetry. George needs Aissa far more than Aissa needs George, and she could easily simply ask for reassignment if she had enough of his shit. Plus, she is arguably far more the focus of the movie, showing her relationships with her family, her fuckbuddy, her supportive best friend, and her dedication to her wrestling training. Aissa has a full life.
This is not a film of obvious character arcs and dramatic declarations. It is about the subtler and more realistic interplays people have in one another’s lives. Moments of connection that anchor and comfort, whose changes might not be wholly apparent immediately.
What George gets from Aissa is pretty obvious. She stays over the night his wee boy is there, blowing off her fuckbuddy to do so, and it is the one night we see George sleep peacefully throughout. What Aissa gets from George is maybe a bit less obvious. In some ways, just their contrast solidifies her belief in herself.
The film’s dramatic climax for me is when Aissa is out on a date with her man, and George interrupts her on her night off to ask to come and pick up his spare keys from her. This is total bullshit, and he deliberately locks his keys in the house so he has an excuse to see her. He crashes her date, and sits down at their restaurant table to interrogate her man. He demands to know if he loves her, repeatedly driving for an answer after being told politely, and then less politely, to fuck off. “You don’t love her!” he accuses him. Aissa’s patience finally snaps, and she says, “I know he doesn’t love me! I just don’t want to hear it.” It’s a shitty thing to do, and a selfish thing to do, and a self-destructive thing to do in this valued friendship, but despite all that, it is also undeniably an insistence on Aissa as deserving of love. It is George’s way of demanding she be treated in a manner she is worthy of.
This is not a film about one magical summer where all a character’s flaws and defects are reversed. And for Deborah, you’d think she’d have the harder job with Aissa’s character, who starts and ends the film as the pretty self-assured person she is. But watching this film which plays up subtler kinds of changes, Deborah’ s performance is actually the strongest. You’d think it would have nowhere to go, but you just sense such a depth to the character, and percolation of ideas, whose effects will display is long, smooth waves, rather than the careening spikes of Gérard’s character.
Robust puts its two big-bodied leads front and centre, and allows their talent to carry the film. A two-handed character study, with as much dry humour as subtly played drama.