10 great French comedy films

There’s never been a better time to celebrate the French comic tradition. Liberté, égalité, hilarité!

21 April 2016

By Leigh Singer

Bed and Board (1970), the fourth instalment of François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series

There’s a strong case to be made that when it comes to two of our greatest cultural strengths, popular music and comedy, we Brits can be more than a little sniffy at appreciating, in the title of one of the film selections below, ‘le goût des autres’. German humour, for example, is often ridiculed on these shores as an oxymoron. As for the French, well, any nation that has adopted Jerry Lewis as the pinnacle of their own foreign comedy appreciation, is seen as lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.

If humour, more than many genres, can be a poor traveller, for linguistic as well as cultural reasons, many times funny is simply universal. With that in mind, this year’s LOCO – the London Comedy Film Festival – has dedicated a section, ‘Liberté, égalité, Hilarité’ to French film comedy. Along with François Truffaut’s collected adventures of Antoine Doinel, there are five new efforts to enjoy. And the strand’s appearance is no coincidence, according to LOCO programmer Jonathan Wakeham.

“There was a very clear purpose after the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks last year,” says Wakeham. “France had had an incredibly painful year and to celebrate the best of French culture is a reminder that it’s not about fear, it’s about liberty, kindness, humour.”

“And in the year of the EU referendum,” he adds, “we wanted to celebrate the relationship between Britain and France, two countries with an inherent comic sensibility.” With that in mind, here are 10 examples – among many, many other candidates – of the very best of French film comedy through the years; some no doubt familiar, others hopefully less so – at least on these shores – and therefore ripe for discovery.

Le Million (1931)

Director: René Clair

Le Million (1931)

It wasn’t just Charlie Chaplin who was unimpressed by the advent of the ‘talkies’. One of France’s guiding cinematic lights, René Clair, also dismissed the vogue for obediently stuffing films with dialogue, which he considered a poor replacement for cinema’s visual potential. Then, with a virtuoso flourish, in only his own second talking picture (a stage adaptation, no less), about the hunt for a missing winning lottery ticket, Clair showed everyone just how innovatively and wittily sound could be used: replacing much of the play’s dialogue with songs, adding a chorus, and experimenting with sound effects that would seem daring even today – for example, scoring the frantic climactic scramble for the coat containing the missing ticket with the sounds of a raucous stadium crowd.

There’s much, much more to Le Million, from its justly famous, swoonsome Parisian rooftop opening tracking shot, to the sheer punch-drunk infectiousness of its community sing-a-longs. In fact, the film overall is so vivacious and light on its feet, it’s only afterwards that you realise you’ve been watching a sly dig at class warfare and greed, for money and for love itself.

Jour de fête (1949)

Director: Jacques Tati

Jour de fête (1949)
© Image credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati before Monsieur Hulot, but still evincing his desire to perfect routines and scenarios already well-developed – in this case, from his short film L’Ecole des facteurs (1947), which also featured him as postman François. Jour de fête’s sleepy French country village charms provide the ideal contrast to François’s mission to ape the “American-style” hi-tech postal deliveries he’s seen in a promo film. Though perhaps not as disciplined here as in his later work, Tati is already honing his more dialogue-free, visual humour, a series of loosely linked comic vignettes in which his relaxed master shots allow jokes to unfold naturally. It’s the play time before Play Time (1967).

Three versions of Jour de fête are still readily available: the black-and-white 1949 release; the rejigged 1964 version complete with added visiting painter’s narration and splashes of hand-drawn colour; and the 1995 reissue, restored to its originally intended colour palette. All three have their charms (though for me, removing the anachronistic 60s artist is a definite improvement) and give a great account of one of French cinema’s masters forging his identity.

Zazie dans le métro (1960)

Director: Louis Malle

Zazie dans le métro (1960)

The French new wave is celebrated for many things, though perhaps less so for out-and-out comedy. Here, then, is the corrective: Louis Malle’s madcap, chaotic adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s so-called unfilmable novel, about a bolshie 11-year-old (the impishly charming Catherine Demongeot) who is palmed off on her ne’er-do-well uncle (a young Philippe Noiret) in Paris while her mother enjoys a romantic rendezvous. Fizzing with visual trickery – jump cuts, fast-motion – that often evokes a Chuck Jones cartoon made flesh, and brimming with wordplay and inventive slang, it turns late-1950s Paris into a vibrant playground where every adult seems emotionally less stable than young Zazie, who cheerfully calls them on their immaturity, while indulging her own.

In fact, for a comedy, there’s a deep melancholy at Zazie’s core. Malle keeps the pace so relentless amid the food fights, casual vandalism and va-va-voom that it’s entirely possible to completely overlook the questioning self-critique of Paris chic, its denizens’ obsession with sex and even the new wave itself altogether. But it’s there all the same, summed up beautifully with Zazie’s insouciant, poignant closing line about what she did on her Paris sojourn: “I got older.”

Les Tontons flingueurs (1963)

Director: Georges Lautner

Les Tontons flingueurs (1963)

This gangster comedy – adapted from Albert Simonin’s novel by screenwriter Michel Audiard (father of A Prophet director Jacques, no less) and director Georges Lautner – was not well regarded upon its initial release, before belatedly becoming a hugely popular French TV staple. Starring Lino Ventura as an ex-gangster pulled back into the underworld by his dying boss, it’s a droll look at competing mobsters all vying for top-dog position, while Ventura himself spends as much time trying to keep his boss’s daughter, a self-declared good-time-girl, out of trouble as he does from avoiding gangland mutiny.

If the film hasn’t caught on outside France, it may be that Audiard’s famous way with piquant slang can be tricky to adequately translate (a point in case: English title ‘Monsieur Gangster’ is as anodyne as they come). What’s much easier to appreciate are Ventura’s nimble comic timing despite his lugubrious heft, a justly renowned moonshine drinking scene and an escalating sense of farce that threatens to overrun the gangsters’ need to keep up their image of control.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Director: Luis Buñuel

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

In 1962, Luis Buñuel made The Exterminating Angel, a Spanish-language surrealist farce about guests who find themselves unable to leave an upper-class dinner party. A decade later, he came to France and flipped the concept to arguably even more potent effect: six snobs repeatedly foiled in their attempts to enjoy a meal together, be it due to wrong dates, dead restaurant managers, even a military intervention. At one point the hapless sextet find their meal actually taking place on a stage.

Melding dream sequences to ‘reality’ without warning and conjuring up ghosts, this is late-period Buñuel at his most devilish, denying his outwardly civilised, inherently entitled characters their rightful place at society’s table, while gleefully exposing their hypocrisy and corruption for all to see. It’s wonderfully underplayed by his starry cast (Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Fernando Rey, Jean-Pierre Cassel), and there’s a breeziness at play in Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière’s script that somehow makes the satire even more potent. 

Le Père Noël est une ordure (1982)

Director: Jean-Marie Poiré

Le Père Noël est une ordure (1982)

Ever wondered if France has its own Withnail & I? A film that flopped on its initial release, only to gain a cult following and dialogue that its fans can quote by heart? Le Père Noël est une ordure, or Santa Claus Is a Stinker (“stinker” being a kind translation), is that film, in spirit if not precise tone or plot. It’s a Christmas tradition in many French households, which joyfully revels in showing the season of goodwill and generosity as tinsel-topped egotism.

Based on a play by comedy troupe Le Splendid – whose members including Christian Clavier, Josiane Balasko and Thierry Lhermitte went on to become major French stars – it’s set in the office of a telephone helpline on Christmas Eve, where two hapless employees struggle to deal with visitors including a depressed transvestite, an abused pregnant woman and her pursuing husband, a volatile, department store Santa Claus with a gun. The escalating chain of catastrophes, which result in needing to dispose of an unexpected corpse, are a delightful mix of outrageous slapstick and some very deft one-liners from a game and shameless ensemble.

Delicatessen (1991)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro

Delicatessen (1991)

A rundown, post-apocalyptic cityscape rendered in hues of tobacco stains and smoke, where people resort to cannibalism to survive. It’s the set-up for a horror film, but in the hands of debut filmmakers Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet – who seem equally inspired by bande dessinée panels, silent cinema storytelling, Heath Robinson invention and Terry Gilliam-esque absurdity (Gilliam co-produces here) – it’s the basis for a singular, blackly comic fantasy.

Centred around a malevolent butcher, his sweet-natured daughter and the clown who comes both to town and between them, Delicatessen is as much about its mood and look as its trippy narrative. Calibrated with fastidious precision, its anarchic, inventive spirit is perhaps encapsulated by the acclaimed scene where, as the butcher makes love to his girlfriend, the squeaking springs on his bed gradually synchronise the entire block’s activities in time to their increasing tempo. Caro and Jeunet’s gift is one of oppositions: framing beauty in squalor, finding the heart and humour in the grimmest of fairytale worlds.

The Taste of Others (2000)

Director: Agnès Jaoui

The Taste of Others (2000)

Director Agnès Jaoui and her co-writer (and frequent co-star) Jean-Pierre Bacri had written award-winning plays and film scripts before Jaoui’s bittersweet, witty and wonderfully astute feature film debut swept the Césars at the turn of the new millennium. An ensemble tale revolving around a middle-aged, conservative businessman Castella (Bacri) and his sudden aesthetic awakening (inspired by falling for his English teacher), The Taste of Others (Le Goût des autres) uses the idea of one’s artistic taste as the launch pad for a wider examination of all those presentation choices we make about ourselves in order to be seen as objects of, if not, outright beauty, then of desire or value.

The narrative deftly weaves among its idiosyncratic though precisely delineated characters (Jaoui as a pot-dealing barmaid, the great Alain Chabat as Castella’s clarinet-playing driver), but it’s the peerless Bacri who steals the show. Comparisons to Woody Allen were flattering if unsurprising, though in truth it’s been a long while since Allen pulled off something as sophisticated and soulful as this (or Jaoui and Bacri’s 2004 follow-up Look at Me).

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

Before The Artist (2011) became an unexpected global hit and awards magnet, director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo teamed up to pay tribute to another 20th-century period and movie genre, with the first in a series of stylish spy spoofs. Jean Bruce’s source novels actually predate Ian Fleming’s 007, but the movie at least unerringly targets an inch-perfect recreation of Connery-era Bond. Agent 117 is a strutting buffoon who loves his job, French colonialism run amok, and the film has great fun sending up the racism, sexism and unwitting homoeroticism of the times, as 117 tries to infiltrate a Cairo riddled with radical locals and devious Nazis.

Some bizarrely inspired set pieces – a fight involving throwing live chickens is a highlight – actually defuse the daring in its post-9/11 allegory of Arab world meddling. Instead, it’s more a showcase for the wonderful Dujardin, blessed with prime Connery looks and physique, plus crack comic timing and a willingness to send himself up. The Artist confirmed that there are few sight gags more appealing than watching Jean Dujardin throw back his head in toothy bonhomie, but OSS 117 is where he first left many of us shaken and stirred with laughter.

The Names of Love (2010)

Director: Michel Leclerc

The Names of Love (2010)

The romcom has – rightfully – taken a pounding of late, audiences tired of its rote manoeuvres. This French take, then, is a breath of fresh air for the genre, as a free-spirited half-Algerian French woman who sleeps with right-wingers to change their political views, falls for an overly cautious, middle-aged avian flu specialist. As much as any meet-cute or belated realisation that an unlikely couple are made for each other, The Names of Love constantly foregrounds questioning of politics, of racial heritage, and of cultural identity, and the film is all the stronger for it.

A note of caution is worth flagging, given the female lead’s self-proclaimed status as a “political whore” and her frequent disrobing. But César-winner Sara Forestier’s guileless, wired performance creates something much more than a patented male fantasy “manic pixie dream girl”, and screenwriters Baya Kasmi and director Michel Leclerc’s daring use of tropes like the Holocaust and paedophilia for the bedrock to their character’s hang-ups, shows they have more on their mind than romance and comedy. The paradoxical result is one of the best modern romcoms and well worth seeking out. (Leclerc’s follow-up, La Vie très privée de Monsieur Sim, starring the wonderful Jean-Pierre Bacri, is one of LOCO’s French highlights).

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