Many of the top box office hits in France are little known in the United States and most have been comedies. While some of these have been remade by Hollywood (think of The Birdcage in 1996, Dinner for Schmucks in 2010, or The Upside in 2017), rarely are the remakes as good as the originals. Nor do the English-language versions capture the unique flavors of “la douce France.”
Watching a French comedy allows us to immerse ourselves in the cultural landscapes of a people who have lived through centuries of European history and thought. It gives us a chance to appreciate what makes gallic humor so French and to understand why much of it is universal. Whether or not we need subtitles to savor the subtleties of dialogue, watching a French comedy brings us closer to the people on the screen and in the audience. We forget divisive borders and laugh together.
The following six titles typify the French tradition of filmed humor. They offer some of the most celebrated moments –and the funniest—in the comic repertoire. Being French, they also illustrate how the national esprit finds philosophy and politics in visual gags and verbal wit alike.
1. The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1885)
Take a quick look at The Sprinkler Sprinkled (L’arroseur arrosé), arguably the first comedy in film history. Made by the Lumière brothers at the dawn of cinema, it shows a mustached gardener watering his plants while a mischievous boy sneaks up from behind and steps on the hose. When the flow stops and the gardener inspects the nozzle, the boy raises his foot and the poor man gets a face full of water. The scene ends with the perpetrator captured and duly sprinkled in return. The whole gag takes less than a minute, shot with a continuous run of the camera: a succinct lesson in how to tell a joke on film. No translation required.
2. Freedom for Us (1931)
As silent films grew longer and matured, René Clair became the genre’s leading pioneer. Clair filmed a number of popular stage farces before venturing into sound, but his most creative work remained more visual than verbal. You can see this in his masterpiece, Freedom for Us (À nous la liberté). Although primarily a comedy, a musical comedy at that, Clair’s film offers an acerbic critique of mechanized labor. One scene shows workers filing into a factory like automatons. They punch in at enormous time clocks and take their places on a long assembly line, each worker adding a screw or a bolt to the conveyor belt of products. The depressing silence of this scene turns into hilarious confusion when a lady’s handkerchief upsets the regimen. Preoccupied with the handkerchief, one worker misses a step, another follows suit, and the whole line tumbles into chaos like a stack of dominos. Anyone who has seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) will notice parallels to Freedom for Us, not only in the way both directors represent modernity as a conveyor belt, but also in the way their visual gags convey their themes. Comedy is an antidote to exploitation, a way to liberate the human spirit from oppression.
3. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
The most well-known heir to this tradition of French luddite humor is Jacques Tati, who carried the visual humor of silent films well into the 1970s. Tati’s comedies are satires, but lighter in tone than Clair’s. They’re filled with moments of slapstick that seem impromptu but are meticulously timed. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot), Tati plays the title character, an amiable if awkward Frenchman who follows the holiday crowd to a seaside resort. At the railroad station, a loud speaker announces the arrival of the next train. The disembodied voice is unintelligible, even to a Frenchman, but it sends the crowd rushing from one platform to another–only to miss the train’s arrival on the track that they just left. A second announcement sends them all scurrying to yet another track, where they fall over their luggage and each other trying to board. It’s another sendup of modern life and its habit of turning humans into machines. No wonder that French intellectuals turned to Henri Bergson for his theories of laughter. Bergson believed that we laugh when people behave like mindless objects, falling on banana peels or acting like robots during the daily commute. At the core of this comedy is an anxiety about free will, determinism, and the need to adapt to a changing world. Tati continued his experiments in metaphysical slapstick with films like My Uncle (Mon oncle, 1958), Play Time (1967), and Traffic (Trafic, 1971), setting his satires in department stores, glass cities, and the modern highway.
4. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973)
Not all French comedies are philosophical, of course. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (Les aventures de Rabbi Jacob) is one long, ludicrous chase scene. Director Gérard Oury sends his protagonist, a shameless bigot named Pivert, through a series of madcap episodes that include a bubble gum factory and a Jewish wedding. Pursued by Arab terrorists and the French police, Pivert escapes only by impersonating a rabbi. He becomes an anti-Semite in Hasidic clothing. Oury, who was Jewish, underplays the moral in favor of laughs. The Jewish dance scene is simply uproarious.
5. The Visitors 1993
Sometimes the chase spans centuries as well as kilometers. Jean-Marie Poiré’s The Visitors (Les visiteurs) is a time-travel comedy that transports a medieval knight and his servant to modern day France. The comic collision of old and new begins when the medieval visitors encounter a yellow postal service truck, mistaking its dark-skinned driver for a Saracen. They draw their weapons and attack the van as if it were the devil’s chariot. Later, introduced to a contemporary bathroom, they mistake the toilet for a magic fountain and pour their host’s entire supply of Channel No. 5 perfume into the bathtub, which they enter fully clothed. While Poiré’s comedy is often silly and derivative—a galloping romp through the clichés of slapstick, burlesque, and one-liners—it is firmly rooted in national history and culture. Some viewers drew parallels between 12th-century Saracens and 21st-century Muslims as the supposed enemies of France. Others viewed the relationship between nobleman and servant as a comment on class distinctions in France.
6. Welcome to the Sticks (2008)
The Visitors set records at the box office and was followed by two sequels, yet Dany Boon’s Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis) became an even greater hit. The trailer highlights the film’s comic premise: the reputation of France’s northern region as a place of freezing weather, economic decline, and boorish citizens who drink too much, eat strange foods, and speak a version of the language unintelligible to outsiders. When Phillipe is transferred to Nord-Pas-de-Calais, all these stereotypes are confirmed. As soon as Phillipe arrives, dressed for the arctic, it starts to pour. The first man he meets speaks French like a drowned duck. His first meal is a frightening concoction of chicory-laced coffee, spicy sausage, and smelly cheese. What makes this medley of regional clichés funny, rather than offensive, is the way Boon turns the table on his own premise.
Some theorists see this kind of comic incongruity as the fulcrum of most humor. The joke sets up one set of expectations and undercuts them with a series of reversals. Boon’s good citizens of Bergues, through their acts of outrageous caricature, hold the stereotypes perpetuated by outsiders up to ridicule. It’s a lesson we can learn from almost any comedy.
Some might say that turning tables is the essence of most humor. A typical joke sets up an expectation, then undercuts it with a surprising reversal. This comic incongruity abounds in all six films. A sprinkler gets sprinkled. An anti-Semite ends up dancing like a Rabbi. A medieval servant learns that his descendants have become lords of the manor. The good citizens of northern France, through their acts of outrageous self-caricature, hold the stereotypes perpetuated by outsiders up to ridicule. It’s a lesson we can learn from almost any comedy.
Featured image by Paul Dufour via Unsplash