Human beings just weren’t made to be alone.
John Donne knew it, Elton John knows it, and deep down, we all know that while solitude and time out is good, being permanently cut off in any kind of meaningful way from the people around us is not good for the soul.
Alas, as Hunting and Gathering (2007) opens, it seems that someone forgot to tell Paulette (Françoise Bertin), an old lady pottering around her much-loved country home and garden, her only apparent company being her cats.
Nor has her grandson Franck (Guillaume Canet), who was raised by her and visits every Monday despite working as a restuarant chef from 8am to midnight on every other day of the week, got the memo.
He lives with the timid, anxious but kindhearted Philibert Marquet de la Tubelière (Laurent Stocker) who is minding a huge, rambling, art-filled apartment in the heart of Paris until his maternal grandmother’s estate is finalised, but Franck is gruff, rude and vehemently antisocial save for the many women he sleeps with and his beloved grandmother with whom he is (mostly) tender and caring.
Sadly too Camille (the luminously good Audrey Tautou) is cut off from the ebb and flow of humanity around her, living in a barely-there alcove at the very top of the apartment block that Philibert and Franck call home, content – though she isn’t really; far from it – to work as a cleaner at night, duel with her negative mother (Danièle Lebrun) at reluctantly-attended lunches and to keep fading away, unable or unwilling to eat enough.
All of these people are giving the island idea a red hot go, not so much out of choice as past hurt and isolationism borne of life scars, but none of them are really making make of a fist of life which is happening around them but not really to them, an all too common refrain for many people who think they are better off alone.
Then one day Camille reaches out to Philibert when they meet one night coming in the main apartment door, tired of the social isolation that comes from many people living together and never interacting, and invites him for dinner in her chilly rooftop abode.
This one impromptu interaction sets in a chain of series of interactions that come to transform the lives of the people in that apartment block and that of many of the people around them, all of whom are indeed of the sense of real belonging that Camille reaches out for when she invites Philibert for dinner.
Camille’s gesture leads to Philibert checking on his new friend one night only to find her shivering and deathly ill in the intolerably drafty, fridge-like garret, a discovery which prompts him to take her down to his apartment where he commences to nurse her back to good health.
Franck is not amused and his initial interactions with Camille aren’t just fraught; their aggressively argumentative, the kind of prelude to what you do deep down is going to be an equally passionate love affair.
So begins the knitting together of lost and lonely human souls that makes the novel on which the film is based, Anna Gavalda’s 2004 novel Hunting and Gathering (French: Ensemble, c’est tout) such a joyous, life-affirming read, a dynamic that the cold-hearted may dismiss as impossibly twee but which incredibly insightful in its affirmation of what makes us truly and engagingly human, and why we need to be close, truly close and not just geographically nearby, to the people around us.
Hunting and Gathering is as warmhearted and heart-stirring as it gets, and yes, much of it feels like the kind of urban fairytale that would struggle to find actual voice in the real world, but it articulates the kind of longing all of us have, especially those of living in often alienating big modern cities, to find likeminded souls who give a damn about us.
Watching these people find each other in this film is a joy, thanks largely to a screenplay that doesn’t stint on how brutally cold we can be when we’re in defensive, keep the world away mode – some of the early conversations make you wonder if these people will ever like, let alone care for each other (save for Philibert who is a darling from the word go) – but also world-class performances which evoke the vulnerability and sadness behind all the cruel and barbed bravado.
Watching them slowly come together as defensive barriers are dropped, claws are withdrawn and hearts opened, is the kind of experience that movies were made for.
Cut off from the outside world for the duration of a film such as this, we can entertain the idea of what it is like to really open yourself up to others, to actually get to know them rather than simply exchanging empty pleasantries, and to get place yourself in a position of trust and potentially life-transforming vulnerability.
There’s no doubt that the lives of Camille, Franck, Philibert and Paulette are going to undergo great and rewardingly positive change, but watching it come to pass, to see Camille and Franck admit to their shared attraction, to watch Philibert conquer his stuttering, finally do a theatrical performance and meet the lovely Sandrine (Sandrine Mazéas) and for Paulette to find a home away from her home, is one of things delightfully heartfelt joys that makes immersing yourself in a film such a deep and abiding pleasure.
The thing is that for all its warm and fuzzy, almost cliched moments and they are there in great profusion, Hunting and Gathering is also unflinchingly real about what loneliness and alienation feels like and what it is like to know nothing but the drudgery of getting up, working and going to sleep.
It also doesn’t pretend that life becomes perfect once the type of connections we all want but don’t always get are forged, but it does affirm, in ways that make the heart sing and the eyes tear up with happiness, that these connections can and do happen and that if we surrender to them, they can make our lives places unrecognisable.
If you ever feel alone and cut off from the world, doubting that it is possible to ever truly feel close to anyone and wondering if life is simply a series of possible relationships that never find actual form, then watch Hunting and Gathering which not only says it can happen but celebrates with rare and heartfelt humanity, how wonderful it is when it actually does.