Friday, August 15, 2008

Papy fait de la résistance

1983, France, directed by Jean-Marie Poiré

In her book French National Cinema, Susan Hayward notes that "[A]part from a couple of comedies", of which this film is one, French cinema of the 1980s did little to tackle the legacy of Occupation period, an especially troubled part of France's historical record.* It's a shame, then, that she provides no analysis of what these few films might have achieved; Papy fait de la résistance was a substantial box office hit on its first release, with that success augmented through subsequent television showings and the home video boom.

Jean-Marie Poiré attempted to deflect some of the controversy that surrounded the film by claiming that it was intended as a satire on films about the Occupation period, but it's clear that Papy takes on some of the well-honed mythologies of the difficult post-war period, particularly the scale of the Resistance. There are plenty of references to prior films set during the same years - particularly La Grande vadrouille, with which it shares major plot elements, and also dramas like Jean-Pierre Melville's intense, bleak L'Armée des ombres - but this film emerged from the often anarchic and rarely respectful café-théâtre movement, not known for its tendency to avoid sacred cows.

As with most of the café-théâtre films, Papy is primarily a set of sketches loosely strung together. Several of the briefer scenes seem designed expressly to allow appearances by members of the Splendid theatre troupe, and while Michel Blanc does a nice job with his few minutes of screen time, other such cameos -- Thierry Lhermitte's in particular -- fall much flatter. Of the main Splendid actors, only Christian Clavier and Gérard Jugnot have major parts, and the latter is especially amusing as a more-zealous-than-the-Germans local Gestapo functionary.

While there's a scattershot tendency to the humour that rarely allows for much genuine reflection on the Occupation period (and a casual homophobia to one of the characters), the film is occasionally inspired, whether in the song performed by Adolf-a-like Ludwig von Apfelstrudel, and especially at the end, when - Monty Python style - the modern world intrudes in the form of a televised debate that scathingly satirises then-contemporary discussions of France's wartime history and role, and which leaves no-one looking entirely admirable.


* p. 286 of Hayward's book; the book is a survey, so a lengthy analysis would hardly have been appropriate, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

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