In the age of Adam Sandler and the Farrelly brothers, it’s hardly surprising that “farcical” has become an insult. Yet a well-made farce is a thing of beauty, grace, and—above all—precision. It depicts a universe in which a hidden order ultimately prevails, however tumultuous it may seem at first. Indeed, some of the most entertaining cinematic farces of recent years aren’t exactly comedies except in the formal sense. Such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Julio Medem are essentially in the farce business; so are all the other directors (mostly European) who specialize in the interlocking-destinies genre.
In a classic farce, as in other comic genres, the corrupt are punished and the worthy rewarded. That’s what happens in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s charming Bon Voyage, but with a downbeat, modern twist: Set in a France that’s just been overrun by Nazi troops, the film implicitly acknowledges that justice will not prevail for everyone. Still, farces often depict people at their worst, and in a French spoof, what better year for that than 1940?
Rappeneau, who’s best known in this country for 1990’s skillful if unexciting Cyrano de Bergerac, opens the proceedings in the logical place: an opulent theater. The star is not onstage, however, but in the balcony. Widely desired screen actress Viviane (Isabelle Adjani) gazes down on the scene below as fans peer up at her. The play over, Viviane meets Beaufort (Gérard Depardieu), an unctuous government minister who is one of her many admirers. She asks about the imminence of war, but there’s a more immediate problem in her own home: Like so many ’40s movie goddesses, Viviane has an inconvenient corpse to eliminate. So she calls yet another sometime beau, would-be novelist Frédéric (Grégori Derangère), for assistance. When he suggests calling the police, she throws herself on a big pink bed and cries. Viviane gives the impression that it’s a well-practiced maneuver.
Later, the body is discovered, Frédéric is arrested, and Viviane goes to ask Beaufort to protect her from scandal—which also happens to be the name of her perfume. In jail, Frédéric and the other prisoners are told they’re being evacuated before the Germans arrive. Amid the confusion, fellow inmate Raoul (Yvan Attal) helps Frédéric escape to Paris’ deserted streets, where he learns that the aristocracy has fled to Bordeaux. That includes Viviane, who got a ride with Beaufort, her new protector. Frédéric hops a train, on which he meets a prim physics student, Camille (Virginie Ledoyen), and her traveling companion, Professor Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehlé), who has something the Germans must not capture. Eventually, they arrive in Bordeaux, where they encounter Winckler (Peter Coyote), an inquisitive American journalist who speaks remarkably good German.
That summary covers less than half of my notes, but you get the idea. Bon Voyage’s script, written by Rappeneau and novelist Patrick Modiano, is impeccably structured; Maryline Monthieux’s editing doesn’t miss a beat; and composer Gabriel Yared provides an astute retro score. Every character with a speaking part has a long-term role to play, and every event turns out to be significant. Even the extras are part of the elegant design, with this film boasting the most fluidly choreographed crowd scenes since Russian Ark. In the face of chaos, Rappeneau orchestrates grand, bustling compositions, as if to remind us that “farce” comes from the Latin farcire, meaning “to stuff.” Everything comes around, so that the film ends as it began, with a couple in a theater—but a different couple and a different kind of theater.
At least in his films that have been distributed in the United States, Rappeneau has never had so much fun, and his cast members obviously shared the joy. In her second career as an ingénue, the 40-something Adjani is clearly enjoying playing ditzy glamour kittens—see also her brief turn in Monsieur Ibrahim—rather than the tortured souls who used to be her speciality, and Ledoyen brings as much passion to her recent bespectacled roles as she once did to more volatile young women. As for Derangère, he’s clearly playing a surrogate for the director—who was a child in the ’40s—yet is not overly idealized. Frédéric is the classic farce hero: well-meaning but bewildered and overwhelmed most of the time.
Although its depiction of petulant gentry and craven ministers is withering, Bon Voyage is barely a satire of the people who created Vichy France. Most of the principal characters are better than the moment in which they live, and even the narcissistic Viviane is not a bad person (that possible murder aside, of course). The only truly evil character is—well, you’ve probably already guessed. Bon Voyage’s spirit is warm and generous, although it’s fair to suggest that the German invasion of France is an awkward occasion for such a romp. Before leveling that criticism, though, first see just how much delight Rappeneau has found in spinning his politically dubious tale.
Miramax isn’t always wrong. That’s the lesson to be drawn, however reluctantly, from the saga of Shaolin Soccer. The movie was released in 2001 in Hong Kong, where it became the highest grossing homegrown flick ever. It was already available on DVD when Miramax acquired it and began tinkering, dubbing, and then stalling. The U.S. release was announced several times, but the distributor always pushed it back. Eventually, championing writer, director, and star Stephen Chow’s neo-slapstick comedy became something of a crusade for this country’s Miramax detractors and HK film fans. Now the retooled movie—call it Kill Ball, Vol. 1—is finally coming to a theater near you—where, after all the anticipation, it will probably die a quick death.
Shaolin Soccer is amiable enough, and a lot less pretentious than most Hollywood sports flicks. (It’s also subtitled, Miramax having wisely abandoned the dubbed version.) Unfortunately, the film is not very funny, and its heavy reliance on special effects undermines the choreography that salvages many otherwise dopey HK action comedies.
After being trimmed by roughly a half-hour, the movie runs a fast-paced 87 minutes. Quickly introduced are hobbled former soccer star “Golden Leg” Fung (Ng Man Tat), and his nemesis, Hung (Patrick Tse Yin), a onetime teammate who forced Fung to throw a crucial game two decades ago. The opening flashback is barely concluded before Fung meets “Steel Leg” Sing (Chow), a dispossessed Shaolin-kung-fu (and Bruce Lee) disciple who now supports himself by collecting aluminum cans. Offered the incentive of a $1 million soccer-tournament prize—and the chance to impress shy chef Mui (Vicki Zhao), who uses kung-fu techniques to make buns—Sing reassembles his old cadre of Shaolin students to face Hung’s own squad, amusingly known as Team Evil. (If only U.S. sports fables could be so efficient.)
Comedies that flip chopsocky clichés into other fields are an HK staple, of course. There have been several involving cuisine, including Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast and Chow’s own God of Cookery. (Japanese “noodle western” Tampopo is a likely precedent for both.) Hark’s movie is no masterpiece, but its action sequences are lively, witty, and not entirely detached from reality. Shaolin Soccer, however, relies so heavily on computer animation that its physical humor has no kick. In technique, it resembles a low-rent version of such half-animated ’toons as Space Jam—and neither Fung nor Hung rivals Michael Jordan or Bugs Bunny.
Comedy seldom travels well, and Chow’s movies are reportedly full of HK argot whose humor can’t be translated. Though Jackie Chan’s best moves—some of them derived, after all, from silent-film daredevils such as Harold Lloyd—have universal appeal, Chow’s maneuvers are secondary to local gags. Even after being extensively Miramaxed, Shaolin Soccer remains a regional delicacy.CP