The Top Ten French Comedies

20 Nov

As of late we have seen a mass proliferation of French films into the UK. Why they have arrived can be attributed to the sheer quality and quantity of output from French filmmakers such as Agnes Jaoui, Jean Pierre Bacri and Thierry Lhermitte. These people have driven cinema forward, and without being elitist, have elevated the general quality of films present in UK cinema. There are other factors of course, such as the fact that French films are better financed now than they have ever been, and also that relations between the UK and France have improved in recent years. Look to the list beyond this and be enlightened as to ten of the best French comedies produced that you will probably not have seen, then haul your uncultured ass along to the Filmhouse to take part in their French film festival. Recommended in particular is LOL, starring Sophie Marceau and Christa Theret and also Des Hommes et des Dieus. This writer personally guarantees that you will be both pleasantly surprised and amused. Just a note though, make sure you know how to read first, there ain’t no engurlish in them thar films!

10. Les Visiteurs

This film is one of the most conventional on show. It was the most successful French film ever in the French domestic market. Based around a simple everyday concept; an 11th century knight and his servant are transported from the past into the present and learn to deal with and survive in the modern world. The result is a hilarious, mostly due to the excellent performances given by Jean “Leon” Reno as the said knight and Christian Clavier as his bumpkin servant. Despite the humour being somewhere around the toilet level at times, Les Visiteurs offers an idiosyncratic experience which will challenge your preconceptions of time travellers in general. This is a very enjoyable film indeed.

9. Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra

At the time (2001) this film was the most expensive French film ever produced. The benefits of this budget are easy to see. With stars such as Monica Belucci and Gerard Depardieu present, stunning sets and mountains of extras, this film offers a feast for the eyes. Based around an Asterix comic, the plot is somewhat childish but ultimately satisfying. Although the laughs maybe somewhat conventionally scripted and easy to see, they are no less funny for it. With excellent performances, wonderful costumes, gags and songs, this film has no sense of self importance and revels in that fact. Self-knowing, wry and again ultimately warm and lovable this is not a film to miss.

8. Les Bronzés font du ski

This film, made in 1979, is a who’s who of French film, at least in the modern era, with names from Christian Clavier, Thierry Lhermitte, Maurice Chevit and Marie-Anne Chazel. These stars light up this otherwise conventional film and elevate it from what some may consider a slightly low status. Despite its immense success in France, it received little to no exposure elsewhere. The plot here is simple, people go skiing and people have accidents (which are hilarious, despite the injuries that the various characters experience). Indeed people do things. Two somewhat inferior sequels were made, but this film did something different, something impossible to copy. It created characters that are thoroughly believable as human beings and thus the situational comedies are all the more enthralling. Join in the iconic song (the title by Pierre Bachelet), drop your presumptions and come along.

7. Mon Oncle

This is a film that film students will know, and perhaps despise. It is the arguably the most conventional (but unarguably the only Oscar winning) film that French cinema auteur Jacques Tati ever created. It is here, again, that Tati employ his signature character, Tatischeff. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but French, Tatischeff was a very distinctive character used in every single one of Tati’s films (six in total). Mon Oncle is no different. Thus Tati bumbles his way through the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of modern life, albeit in his idiosyncratic but ultimately humorous manner. As an example of Tati’s work, this is limited, as a beginning to French cinema and indeed to Tati, it is invaluable, miss it at your own risk.

6. Parlez-moi de la Pluie

The first of the Jean Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui films on the list; this is also the most recent. Bacri and Jaoui were theatre actors who wrote and performed in a number of their own plays. They then made films of these plays, each with marvellous results, of which this film is an example. We follow Agathe Villanova (Jaoui), a politician and feminist as she returns home for ten days to shoot a documentary filmed by Michel Ronsard (Bacri) and Karim (a truly excellent Jamel Debbouze). As is always the case in these films, there is a labyrinth of family politics to unwind, nonetheless, like other movies on this list; Parlez-moi de la Pluie is a wonderful example of a good story told well. With an expertly woven script incorporating drama, tragedy and comedy, Parlez-moi de la Pluie is entrancing. Truly, it would be a sin to miss it.

5. Le dîner de cons

The infinitely superior predecessor to “Dinner for Schmucks” (Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel, 2010), Le dîner de cons is notable for a number of reasons: the first of which are two leads, Thierry Lhermitte (a name which should be familiar by now) and Jacques Villeret. Lhermitte is excellent as always, but it is Villeret who shines. Villeret, now sadly deceased, plays monsieur Pignon, an idiot whom Pierre Brochant, publishing extraordinaire, invites to his “Dinner for Idiots” in order to mock him. The film clearly flaunts its theatrical roots, for it compromises one room and two men for the vast majority of its running time. That the film is so hilarious is a testament to the quality of the script and the ability and chemistry of the two actors on display. For Villeret is truly mesmerising, fully becoming his character, a master at his peak. If you are fully possessed of your sanity, you will see this, the original, the classic.

4. L’Arnacoeur

L’Arnacoeur is the most recently released film on this list. Starring Roman Duris and Vanessa Paradis, it follows the story of a professional break-up artist, who (surprise surprise) breaks up couples for a living. He is hired to break-up the daughter of a gangster from her fiancé, a rich Englishman, but of course, over the progression of the film, he falls in love! What is not exemplary in this film is the originality of the plot, what is exemplary however, is the general quality of the film. Truly beautiful cinematography (the film is set in a sun-flooded, softly shaded, golden Monaco), riveting performances and a riotous script ensure that this film is a fundamentally good natured experience that you’d be mad to miss.

3. Neuilly Sa Mere

This is again another more recent film, and is an excellent example of the kind of high class comedies that the French film system now seems to be producing effortlessly. For this film we follow young Sami Benboudaoud as he is transplanted from his working class council estate to live with his aunt and her wealthy husband Stanislas de Chazelle in the posh Parisian département of Neuilly. Excellently scripted, this film offers an insightful look into the discrepancies of contemporaneous French society, from the disaffected Arabic portion of the population (Sami etc) to the Sarkozy worshipping yuppies (Stanislas’ son Charles) and the prejudices encountered. Done in a breezy and ebullient manner, Neuilly Sa Mere wins you over quickly, educates you a little and more importantly causes asses to be laughed off. See now.

2. Les Goût des Autres

This is a collaboration by Jean Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, adapted from a theatre production. Theatrical influences abound, indeed as one of the main characters is an actress a portion of the film is set on the stage itself. In another film this might have been a weakness, pretention may have abounded. Needless to say that it does not. Bacri and Jaoui show their true ability in this, their masterpiece. Tight, impressive scripting, imaginative set-pieces, beautiful cinematography, believable and sympathetic characters, humour by the bucket-load and excellent performances from all the cast ensure that Les Goût des Autres earns its place in the upper echelons of the pantheon of French film with ease. This film represents the best introduction into the world of Bacri and Jaoui (Un Air de Famille is an excellent second), and is also an excellent choice for a first French film. Go and watch, you will enjoy.

1. Bienvenue chez les Ch-tis

This, the last film on the list, may not be as high concept, or as artistically engaging as some other examples, yet on pure comedy it delivers in abundance. Indeed this is the funniest film, and in a list of comedies, that is the most important qualifier for prominence. In this we have that oldest of tropes, the north/south divide, which is ploughed fruitfully for laughs. Postal worker Philippe claims he is disabled in an attempt to have himself transferred to a sunnier clime. Upon the corporate discovery that he is indeed not disabled, he is sent to… (dunh dunh dunh dunh) …THE NORTH! What follows is an enlightened puncturing of stereotypes told in a warm human way with a playful style by writer/director/star Dany Boon.  Belly laughs abound for all nationalities and indeed it is an absolute pleasure to watch.

Sean Cameron

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