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Les Compères

By writing about film, I am secretly hoping to goad the Ionarts film critic into writing something. Les Compères [The Emcees, with pun on père, or father] (1983) is a classic French comedy I have just seen again recently. It reunited the triumvirate of actors Gérard Dépardieu and Pierre Richard and writer/director Francis Veber, who had collaborated with such success on the even funnier La Chèvre [The goat] in 1981. (The team milked the same cow in Les Fugitifs [The fugitives] in 1986.) Veber's comic writing is legendary: his best work includes La Cage aux Folles (1978 [The Crazy Women Cage]) and the cruel but hilarious Le Dîner de Cons (1998 [The Dumbass Dinner]).

Still from Les CompèresVeber's work is directly in the line of French comic playwrights from Molière onward. He has a comic type, the hapless neurotic François Pignon, who appears in several of his screenplays and is played by different actors. In effect, the character is really only a mask in the sense that it doesn't matter who plays him; he is universal. Much of the comic development occurs because of misunderstandings and often the audience understands a situation perfectly that none of the actors in the film understand. In Les Compères, for example, both protagonists are chasing after the same teenager, but each has been told that he is the boy's father. For the first part of this chase, they tell each other and other people about their sons, who are as different as the two supposed fathers. The conceit is sustained until they both show duplicate photographs of the same boy to a gas station attendant (see image at right). As they instantly go from confirmed bachelors to opinionated parents, Veber uses his two opposing characters to skewer society's conventions about raising children: one that is disciplinarian and machoistic in style and the other that is touchy-feely psychobabble.

Why do Hollywood companies insist on remaking successful French films into mediocre American ones? Ivan Reitman adapted Veber's script of Les Compères for Robin Williams and Billy Crystal as Father's Day (1997). Veber himself remade Les Fugitifs in English with Nick Nolte and Martin Short as The Three Fugitives in 1989. Mike Nichols adapted La Cage aux Folles for Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as The Birdcage in 1996. Happily, Le Dîner de Cons has yet to be remade as an American film, although I'm sure there is a pitch being made right now somewhere in Studio City. Are subtitles really so odious?

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