Saturday, August 7, 2010

Maggie 2010: Buddy Films, the French Way

Much as I enjoy a good buddy comedy, American fare can be quite exhausting. The very core of the character archetypes explored in American buddy flicks and, say, French buddy flicks are markedly different -- as these two movies will readily attest to. It's not a physical age thing; and the mental age is in many ways just as petty. But the starting points are different: Men in mainstream American buddy comedies are clinging dearly to the vestiges of childishness, from which only further childishness -- slapstick comedy, outrageous sexual and violent acts, and crazy drug-induced highs -- can emerge. Meanwhile, in French buddy flicks the men are accomplished, educated, and appreciate the "finer things" in life -- ergo when they disintegrate, the descent is both more nuanced and more palpable.

So if Hot Tub Time Machine was as much the final straw for you as it was for me, give these two works a shot instead!

#92. My Best Friend

Francois (Daniel Auteuil) is an art dealer who thinks his life complete until the discovery that the people he spends his time with don't count themselves as his friends. Shaken by the notion of his own funeral being poorly attended, he seizes at any cost a prized Grecian urn at auction depicting the ultimate friendship -- a purchase that places him in the middle of a difficult bet. Now Francois has ten days to convince his associates that he has a "best friend" -- an ordeal that pits Francois against a lifetime's worth of self-absorption every step of the way.

Very early into this film, director Patrice Leconte introduces viewers to the man we suspect will become Francois' best friend in just those ten days -- Bruno (Dany Boon), a taxi driver with a love for trivia and his own, deep store of crippling disappointment. Bruno makes friends with everyone, and in so doing, makes close friendships with none, so the stakes are just as real for him in these ten days as they are for the ever-manipulative Francois.

What makes this film so successful -- again, as mainstream fare goes, for Leconte certainly plays to some fairly obvious conventions in his plot and culmination -- is that knowing Bruno to be the likely best friend in no way lessens the film; rather, in watching these two middle-aged men struggle together for some sense of reconciliation with their own life choices, the surrounding artifice fails to matter: We are watching human beings achieve small victories in the face of great losses, and there is a truth to such happenstance that rises above even the most conventional cinematic devices used here.

#93. The Dinner Game (1998)

Let me just say now that while I haven't yet seen the 2010 remake of The Dinner Game, I'm quite certain Steve Carrell will make it an entertaining experience. Nonetheless, there are some crucial differences (from what I've heard to date) between this remake and the original, and not least of these is that in the remake, the titular dinner game actually occurs; whereas, in the original, knowledge of the game merely hangs over viewers as they watch the film's sad events unfold.

The difference, thematically, is thus quite palpable, for the dinner game is a weekly dinner in which a group of intelligent, successful people each brings along one "idiot" to share with their friends. The aim of this bit of entertainment is always to find the "biggest" idiot -- with idiocy defined, it seems, in large part by the pride taken by said individuals in their inane personal opinions and mindless lesser hobbies or rituals. By presenting the dinner game as an abstract idea that the audience never sees wholly played out, this notion of making sport of other people's differences gains a measure of universality: We see in its description a marked similarity to all entertainment derived through the mockery of people we hold to be lesser -- and that allows us quite easily to put ourselves in the shoes of lead actor Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) who thinks he's scored the biggest idiot yet.

Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret) makes matchstick masterpieces, and boasts about them to a friend of Pierre's on a commuter train, who eagerly passes on the hapless fellow's name. Pierre is a successful publisher, while Francois works at the tax agency, and when Pierre invites Francois to dinner Francois expects a book deal for his matchstick creations is in the works. Our heartbreak for Francois is easily met, however, with heartbreak for Pierre -- for though he's hardly the world's greatest man, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune he's about to experience at Francois' well-meaning hands means he's more than met his match.

The problem at the film's centre is threefold: 1) Pierre has a bad back that night, meaning they can't attend the titular dinner party. 2) While Francois is present, Pierre's wife calls the house to tell Pierre she's leaving him forever. And 3) Francois, for all his bumbling, bungling ways, is a good person at heart: having lost his own wife two years' back he doesn't want to leave Pierre crippled physically and emotionally for the night. The outcome of these three factors is a series of events as gripping as it is comical, as hand-wringing as it is eye-rolling. If any a film makes the point that people can be many things all at once -- stupid and compassionate, smart and reckless, and even stupid and smart in turns -- this is that film.

What makes The Dinner Game an excellent buddy flick is truly the solidarity through circumstance that holds Pierre and Francois together throughout the film, despite Pierre's regular insistence that Francois leave him alone (until, of course, Pierre suddenly needs him again). Many an American buddy comedy also pairs unlikely opposites for great amusement through self-discovery; but as this film amply demonstrates, whatever an American film can do, a French film can probably do better. ...Or, at least without sex, drug, and fart jokes. (That said, we'll soon see if Carrell's version proves me wrong!)

No comments: