A philosopher with cerebral palsy and a mortician take a road trip with a corpse through Switzerland. That might sound like the opening line of a joke, but it’s actually a description of Beautiful Minds, a movie written and directed by its two leading actors, Bernard Campan and Alexandre Jollien. Jollien is actually a philosopher with cerebral palsy and has written a number of books, among them, the bestselling In Praise of Weakness and Mischievous Wisdom, which have been translated into several languages.
To say Jollien is an unusual hyphenate is an understatement. Brainy, charming and articulate, it takes a huge effort for him to walk and speak clearly and his life has, in a sense, forced him to become a philosopher. Institutionalized as a child, he turned to philosophy to widen his horizons and he opens up about his life and challenges in this semi-autobiographical movie, which is nevertheless fiction and features a dramatic story.
His mind seems to be constantly energized by the challenges he fights with his body and the best parts of the script, which the two actors wrote with Helene Gremillon, are quotes from Stoic philosophers, Zen masters and philosophers such as Nietzsche, Plato and many of the greats. Igor, Jollien’s character, debates with Louis (Campan) about how to accept the inevitability of death and speaks about how his cerebral palsy gives him a unique perspective on life.
“Montaigne said that he wanted death to find him carefree, planting his cabbages,” he comments at one point. In another scene, after he spills coffee at a coffee machine at a rest stop and faces angry taunts from those in line behind him, he jokes, “The Stoics say we should imagine the worst possible every day. This was the worst.”
“The Stoics say we should imagine the worst possible every day. This was the worst.”Alexandre Jollien as Igor
What is the story of Beautiful Minds?
THE STORY starts out focusing on Louis’s daily life and the inner workings of his mortuary and we see how he has to be a kind of psychologist to deal with the grieving family members – which he does without the unctuous, frequently satirized fake empathy of American morticians – but also with the indifferent relatives, whom he has to track down. Although he is the boss, he volunteers to drive a hearse to bring a body across the country and ends up bringing along Igor, whom he met earlier in the day after he was responsible for an accident in which Igor – who somehow manages to make deliveries for an organic produce store – fell off his bike.
The movie settles into a road-trip template, and it’s also one of those movies about a straitlaced person being liberated by getting to know the kind of person once described as “kooky.” After the mishap by the coffee machine, they pick up Cathy (Tiphaine Daviot), an attractive young woman whose ride-share driver abandons her due to her siding with Igor. She takes them to a bachelorette party with all her friends, who include Laetitia Eido of Fauda, and later Igor meets and makes a connection with a call girl, who assures him that his body is not hideous.
Eventually, they deliver the body to relatives of the deceased and end up staying for the funeral, where Igor charms the mourners with a eulogy, and Louis admits to a grief he has hidden for years. Plotwise, the story is resolved neatly but the formulaic storyline is greatly enhanced by the philosophical musings throughout.
Usually, I either like or dislike a movie, but with Beautiful Minds, I kept going back and forth, finding it alternately charming and cloying. The point about how boorish people tease and underestimate Igor is effective, but it is hammered home many times. However, it made me think of a family member with a cerebral palsy-like condition, who has told me about how often this kind of thing happens to her, sadly, and how people are shocked to learn she has a Master’s degree – so I understand why it bears repetition. But the buttoned-up Louis seems to be a cliché just sitting there waiting to be freed by Igor, which became tiresome. In a sense, the movie is a reverse of Les Intouchables, where an angry disabled man is liberated by his contact with his free-spirited caretaker.
In the end, this movie will be appreciated most by intellectuals who will enjoy Jollien’s philosophizing as he truly has a beautiful mind.