France (1993) Dir. Jean-Marie Poiré
Time travel films are hard to get right, especially as pedantic nerds will be waiting to rip apart the disruption of the space-time continuum and the paradox of someone being in the same time zone with their modern or past counterparts. So, the best approach is to make a silly comedy out of it, like the French have done with Les visiteurs.
In the year 1123, Godefroy Amaury de Malfête (Jean Reno), is rewarded by King Louis VI (Didier Pain) for saving his life by permitting his marriage to Frénégonde de Pouille (Valérie Lemercier). On his way to meet Frénégonde, Godefroy falls foul of a witch (Tara Gano) who poisons his drinking flask. After taking a swig from it, Godefroy mistakenly shoots his future father-in-law (Patrick Burgel), seeing him as a huge bear.
With Frénégonde refusing to marry the man who killed her father, Godefroy and his loyal servant Jacquouille la Fripouille (Christian Clavier) visit the wizard Eusebius (Pierre Vial) to help them turn back time and rectify the killing. But Eusebius forgets an ingredient of the potion and instead sends them into the future to 1992! Luckily they arrive in the same place so all they need to do is track down their descendants to get home again…
Despite being almost 25 years old Les visiteurs remains the fifth highest grossing film in French history, although its two sequels and American remake (also starring Reno and Clavier) don’t seem to have fared so well. It still holds up with its blend of slapstick, farce and historical tampering although the modern day scenes are very much a product of their time aesthetically, the fashions likely to raise as many giggles as the gags.
And for the science nerds who pour over the minutiae of the potential time paradoxes, this is actually addressed in the script in a unique manner and while it probably doesn’t make complete sense when under intense scrutiny, it shows at least Jean-Marie Poiré and co-writer Christian Clavier were apparently thinking of them too!
Starting off a brisk pace which it maintains through its 102 minute run, aided by some quick cut editing which in times is quite jarring, the historical opening act shows the usual attention to detail the French pay to their past in their films, while some the silliness will have some recalling Month Python And The Holy Grail, at least a less surreal version.
Godefroy is actually a Count and well in with the King, known as Louis The Fat, thus he carries himself with an elevated demeanour and a similarly demeaning attitude towards the peasants. Once in 1992, there is still no humility and Jacquouille remains his lowly servant, happy to sleep on the floor and eat his leftovers. This haughty behaviour gets Godefroy in trouble with the law and sent to a mental hospital.
Luckily, Godefroy encounters aristocrat Béatrice de Montmirail (Lemercier again), the spitting image of Frénégonde which Godefroy deduces makes her his descendant. Béatrice however assume that Godefroy is her missing stuntman cousin Hubert and has him released into his custody, along with Jacquouille, against the wishes of her husband Jean-Pierre (Christian Bujeau).
From here we get plenty of laughs from the fish-out-of-water (or out of time in this case) scenario of the two time travellers trying to navigate around the house full of modern (for the period) wonders. Coupled with Godefroy’s heightened sense of status things are given an different twist, his pomposity leading to dismissal of simple things he dismisses as servant activities which are everyday tasks in 1992.
Amusingly, Godefroy considers Béatrice’s home-cum-dental surgery to be a small hovel befitting a peasant and yearns for his old castle, which has been sold and turned into a hotel by Jacques-Henri Jacquard (Clavier again), who happens to be a wealthy descendant of Jacquouille. This creates a clash between master and servant, the latter excited to learn his legacy beget a successful person, looking to get a piece of the action himself.
There is a lot of running around as a result of the chaos created by the presence of the time travellers, as well as incidental distractions such as the rich banker Jacques-Henri is trying to impress at his hotel, which goes horribly wrong at every turn. Equally funny is the excitable yet somewhat accepting reaction to everything by Béatrice, failing to express shock and dismay as events unfold like everyone else, offering the verbal equivalent of a resigned shrug.
It is how the whole thing is played for laughs whilst Godefroy remains serious that makes the humour so rich. One conventional plot element thankfully absent is the emotional connection between the characters, leading to a tear jerking finale, with everyone having been on a journey of self-discovery; instead it is subverted with typical French nonchalance and cheeky twist for one character.
Behind the madcap comedy and the sci-fi fancy of time travel, there is a tacit sub text concerning the age-old concern of the class system, played out through Jacquouille and his meeting with wannabe singer vagrant Ginette The Tramp (Marie-Anne Chazel). Nothing overtly didactic but a reminder of the “us and them” ongoing war that rages between the “haves” and the “have nots”.
Watching this film today provides the hindsight spectacle of seeing Jean Reno do comedy in contrast to his current run of tough guy cop roles. While still straight faced, he has the timing and physical energy to make Godefroy very amusing. But Christian Clavier steals the show playing both the walking miasma that is Jacquouille and the effete, image conscious and uptight Jacques-Henri. Valérie Lemercier is also a hoot as Béatrice.
If French comedies are considered either too arcane or verbosely indulgent to connect with international audiences, Les visiteurs shatters that illusion with its easy to follow story and mass appeal humour whilst retaining its French identity and charm.
A time-hopping and timeless slice of classic comedy mayhem.