The French like their comedies, and their tastes don’t just extend to Molière – as evidenced by a long line I once saw in Paris outside a movie theatre advertising a Marx Brothers picture. Yet many Gallic laugh-fests are rarely seen outside the continent, owing in part to the use of subtitles, as well as factors such as limited distribution. The following seven French flicks are ones that I think should be better known, as they’re just as good (if not better) from a comedic perspective as their English-language counterparts. If you can find them on DVD or in the theatre, I encourage you to watch them.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
What happens when you save a hapless bum from drowning in the Seine? Well, if you’re the bourgeois bookseller who rescues him, you get repaid with ingratitude and lustful behaviour. This seminal film from Jean Renoir, with the incomparable Michel Simon as the titular character, inspired Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), but it’s the original, antiestablishment French film that makes the biggest impact. Don’t forget to watch for the final scene, when viewers can see what it’s really all about.
That Man From Rio (1964)
Wild, crazy and utterly delightful, this Philippe de Broca film rushes about like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) on speed. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a young man trying to rescue his girlfriend (Françoise Dorléac) from kidnappers, the picture breathlessly jumps from France to Brazil while retaining a singular, breezy humour. It’s got action. It’s got adventure. It’s got comedy. What’s not to like?
The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob (1973)
More prescient now than when it debuted more than 40 years ago, Gérard Oury’s hilarious tale of a bigot forced to don the garb of a Hasidic rabbi to escape from Arab assassins – all the while befriending and assisting an Arab rebel leader on the run – is chock-full of ridiculousness … and laughter. Oh, yeah: It stars the great Louis de Funès, whose mastery of slapstick comedy has to be seen to be believed. And there’s a moral, too, amid all of the nonsense – that all men are brothers. Surely that’s an idea we need to remember more often.
The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Like Luis Buñuel? I sure as heck do, and this film is one of my favourites. Basically a compendium of scenes poking fun at contemporary behaviours, The Phantom of Liberty is as surreal as all git-out, particularly in a sequence during which a group of friends sits on toilets at the table together instead of dining. Brilliant, puncturing comedy from the always perceptive master director and a must-see.
Small Change (1976)
This François Truffaut film is one of the greatest movies about kids ever made. Using a cast primarily composed of non-professional child actors, the picture offers an episodic, often-charming view of the lives of the young inhabitants of a small French village. Word of warning: Some scenes – including one involving a toddler and an open window – may be very scary for parents and other sensitive viewers, and the film doesn’t shy away from issues such as abuse, which one of the characters endures. One of Truffaut’s best films, in my opinion.
Jupiter’s Thigh (1980)
Another lighthearted romp from de Broca, Jupiter’s Thigh concerns the adventures of an older French couple (Philippe Noiret and Annie Girardot) as they deal with murder while attempting to save a particularly sensitive fragment of an ancient statue. Cheerful and carefree, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously … which means all the more fun for viewers. Oh, and make sure you stay for the end. It’s vital – in more ways than one.
Les Compères (1983)
Yes, this is the film that was remade as Fathers’ Day (1997), but Francis Veber’s original is the version to see. Starring the wonderful Pierre Richard and the beefy Gérard Depardieu as two very different men out to rescue a runaway teenager who might just be their son, Les Compères is silly and honest at the same time. Lots of laughs, of course, and terrific performances, as well as fine comic pacing from Veber. This is a good one.