Whereas I Served the King of England is all about the high life, The Grocer’s Son argues for a return to basics. French director Eric Guirado’s film focuses on Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé), a 30-year-old who’s guilted into helping his family’s small Provence grocery after his father has a heart attack. Antoine quit the business 10 years earlier to move to the city and doesn’t want to return, particularly because his relationships with his Dad (Daniel Duval) and responsible brother, Françoise (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié) are strained.
It’s not necessarily the sight of his panicked mother (Jeanne Goupil) perched on his apartment’s beanbag chair that changes his mind, though: Antoine has his eye on a neighbor, Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who does little but work toward getting accepted into college and worries about how to pay for it. So Antoine borrows money from Mom with the intention of working it off—and having an excuse to invite an unsuspecting Claire to the quiet countryside.
Antoine’s sneaky bribe is the first sign of his jackassery, and there are plenty more to come. At the beginning of Guirado’s story (co-written with Florence Vignon), Antoine seems a bit petulant but will still be sympathetic to anyone who’s been suffocated by a small town and overbearing family. Once he and Claire arrive in Provence, though, Antoine proves to be nothing but a brat. The gorgeous scenery and “country air”—which a new customer too-obviously says in passing should do “nothing but good” to his stressed-out wife—doesn’t affect Antoine a whit as he drives his father’s mobile-grocery van and is rude and demanding to his charming elderly patrons. He honks obnoxiously once he gets to their hamlets and hauls off before a tiny old woman with a cane can hobble over. Credit is no longer an option, and jokes are a waste of time.
Antoine’s romantic moves are no smoother: He doesn’t respect Claire’s need for quiet study time and certainly doesn’t understand her politeness with his family or the customers. And when she does give in to his advances (that country air and, perhaps, a bit of alcohol is to blame) but is cool the next day, his abhorrent reaction registers at about the sixth-grade level.
Redemption is impending, of course. But whatever it is that flips Antoine’s switch isn’t obvious, and he’s too much of a boor until that point anyway. Ignore the main character, however, and The Grocer’s Son is nearly salvageable as a celebration of rustic pleasures, from the sun in Antoine and Claire’s faces as they ride in the van to the audible crunch whenever someone bites into a thick slice of bread blanketed in fresh cheese. The crinkled old customers, too, are authentic, locals with no professional experience except being delightfully eccentric shoppers. (Especially entertaining is the cantankerous, boozy Lucienne [Liliane Rovère], who’s openly hostile to Antoine.)
Guirado attempts to draw a clear connection between the unpleasant Antoine and his father, a domineering and hypercritical brute himself. Meanwhile, the good kid is masking his own depression, not telling his family that his wife left him years ago. Françoise’ story, though minor, is the more interesting and sympathetic one—if only Guirado had chosen to focus on the grocer’s other son.