French comedy, like comedy of any specific region, has a wide range of subjects and styles from which to draw – some comedies rely more on the physical and slapstick, while others relate more to character-based humor and the everyday absurdity of human interaction. Two French comedies from the 90s and early 2000s encapsulate this divide quite well – 1993’s Les Visiteurs and 2000’s Le Gout des Autres (The Taste of Others). Visiteurs is a goofy, fantastical fish-out-of-water story about a knight and his squire (played by Jean Reno and co-writer Christian Clavier), who find themselves transported from 1123 to 1993 France by an accident of witchcraft and magic. The Taste of Others, on the other hand, is a modern tale of a rich steel factory owner (Jean-Pierre Bacri) who falls for a bohemian actress named Clara (Anne Alvaro), and attempts to ingratiate himself with her art-world friends. While Visiteurs takes its comedy from the wild antics that two men unfamiliar with the modern world get into, The Taste of Others is a subtler piece about the differences between people, and how that can serve as a powerful attractive force.
Les Visiteurs is the more overt comedy of the two – its premise is silly and meant to set up all manner of comedic ways. By setting the film up as a fantasy, the audience is already lulled into a sense of broad comedy; the period costumes and situations are just as broad as you could expect in a film with witches and wizards. A particularly gruesome scene near the beginning of the film shows a drugged and bewitched Reno accidentally killing his betrothed’s father with a crossbow bolt, believing him to be a fearsome bear. The camera campily follows the arrow as it goes through the Duke’s head, who then falls over in an outrageously broad manner. This firmly establishes the manner of comedy the film deals in; the humor of Les Visiteurs is meant to shock and provoke with its silliness and over-the-top violence, as well as crude jokes about the homeless and fat people (the King is named Louis VI “Le Gros”, French for ‘fat,’ and a homeless girl they meet on their journeys is named “La Clocharde,” which means ‘tramp’ in French).
Once the pair are transported to modern France, they fare no better, engaging in broad physical comedy that comes from the absurdity of the situation they are in. Reno’s and Clavier’s characters look in fascination at the toilet, bathing in it; Reno pours an expensive bottle of perfume all over himself because he likes the smell, and trashes a postman’s car because they believe it is a terrible monster. These sorts of gags are par for the course for the fish-out-of-water comedy, as the comedy comes from people not from our time or place making misunderstandings of ordinary life.
The Tastes of Others, in contrast to the broad wackiness of Les Visiteurs, seeks to find the subtler comedy in modern cultural and social misunderstandings, as well as the charming flaws of its characters. Much of the comedy comes through the well-meaning but somewhat dull steel factory owner Castella, as he juggles the attitudes of both his chintzy, Martha Stewart-minded wife Angelique (Christiane Millet), and the adventurous, abstract interests of the outgoing Clara. In growing closer to Clara and attempting to ingratiate himself with her friends, much of the humor comes about in Castella’s cluelessness as Clara’s bohemian friends make fun of him for not knowing much about Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. Castella engages in these proceedings with an admirable, yet comedic cluelessness (a naivete possibly shared by the protagonists of Les Visiteurs), prompting the comedy to become a bit sweeter and cloying than the abrasive situations of Visiteurs. The fact that he simply does not fit in with this group of much younger, much more arty people is the primary source of humor in the film, and yet the film does not pity him; rather, it sympathizes with him by making Angelique a rightful source of scorn for her kitschy, unappealing fashion and decorating sense. By focusing the comedy on a particular character trait of the main character, the comedy serves to illuminate the audience on the character’s true feelings and motivations, and makes them relate to him more.
Both Les Visiteurs and The Taste of Others feature characters who are a bit out of their element – the knights with 20th century Frane, Castella with the bohemian art world. However, whereas the knights of Les Visiteurs bumble and offend their way through the modern world to elicit laughter from the audience, Castella’s bumbling yet affable confusion at the art world he chooses to engage in with Clara and her friends is earnest and drawn with a very sympathetic brush, thus making it more directly charming and gentle. There is certainly room for both approaches when it comes to comedy, especially French comedy, but understanding the differences in style helps the viewer to appreciate what they get out of each film – whether it be perversely humorous gags or quirky character-based misunderstandings.
Jaoui, Agnes (dir.). Le gout des autres. Perf. Jean-Pierre Bacri, Anna Alvaro, Alain Chabat.
Poire, Jean-Marie (dir.). Les Visiteurs. Perf. Jean Reno, Christian Clavier, Valerie Lemercier.