Shut Up! (Tais-toi!)

France (2003) Dir. Francis Veber

For what is essentially a buddy movie, and a zany one at that, Shut Up! is a unlikely choice of title, deliberately not telling us anything about the story; even its alternative English title of Ruby & Quentin, which at least lets us know it is about two people (both a male by the way) leaves plenty to the imagination.

Therefore it will surprise many to learn the eponymous principals are in fact a pair of burly criminals. Quentin (Gérard Depardieu) is a hulking brute of a man, short of a few fully functioning brain cells, arrested after a failed robbery attempt. His gregarious personality and simple minded attempts at befriending people sees Quentin become an unpopular cell mate and a problem for the officers.

Meanwhile a criminal named Vogel (Jean-Pierre Malo) kills his wife after learning she was having an affair with one of his men, Ruby (Jean Reno). In revenge, Ruby foils a heist Vogel’s gang pull off and steals the 20 million Euros from the job, only to be arrested after hiding the money. Ruby refuse to talk or eat, so the prison officers put Quentin in with him hoping Ruby will crack from the pressure of Quentin’s vexing presence.

Simple people really shouldn’t be the subject of comedy but sometimes that fine line, which is easy to cross, in how they are depicted can make all the difference. Luckily Francis Veber and Serge Frydman – who provided the idea – make Quentin the innocent type who isn’t really a danger to anyone but himself. He certainly isn’t stupid, just a little naïve, cerebrally underdeveloped and a little too unfiltered for his own good.

Thus the humour that comes from his actions is relatively harmless. At the start of the film we see him unsuccessfully try to hold up a Bureau de Change, only to be directed to the nearest bank by the tellers. That is a more successful robbery but hiding out at the cinema during a kids screening of Ice Age isn’t one of Quentin’s better ideas.

While we get some cute giggles from Quentin’s antics, Ruby’s story is, in contrast, darker and serious, resulting in the occasional bursts of violence and not the comic type either. For a brisk, offbeat comedy not in the horror genre there is a lot of bloodshed and dead bodies, perhaps a deliberate and sobering reminder that Quentin is a part of our world rather than us being a part of his.

In that respect there is no singular perspective from which the story is being told, which takes off the pressure off from potentially exploiting Quentin for cheap comic gain. Veber fortunately has proven himself in this area with Le dîner de cons (remade in the US as Dinner For Schmucks), making the supposed targets for derision the true human beings of the story.

So, how does this seemingly disparate pair get together? Because Ruby refuses to do anything except stare at his prison wall, Quentin does all the talking, leading to the unusual result of him not getting into a fight with his cell mate. Believing Ruby is akin to a soul mate Quentin decides they are friends and that they will open a café together once free from jail.

Ruby may appear catatonic but his mind is constantly working and slashes his wrists in order to be moved to the psychiatric wing. Quentin then follows suit as he is missing Ruby. A male nurse (Guillaume de Tonquédec) is on Vogel’s payroll but Ruby breaks his act and bribes him to help escape – only Quentin has already devised his own escape plan with help from a friend outside, Martineau (Ticky Holgado).

Quentin’s plan is executed on the same day as Ruby’s ruining his plan but at least getting him, out of prison. However Ruby refuses to believe Quentin is as daft as he seems, thinking he is working for the police but the penny eventually drops. Despite trying to get rid of Quentin, the pair ends up staying together through thick and thin.

One thing Veber avoids is conventional sentimentality, meaning Ruby doesn’t have a drastic change of heart towards Quentin, and they hug it out to the swell of a stirring musical overture. A bond does form but Ruby learns from it the hard way, keeping all the usual distractions at bay. Instead Veber introduces an illegal immigrant (Leonor Varela), the spitting image of his dead lover, as his symbol of redemption.  

At a brisk 82 minutes the story barely has time to breath, resulting in a lot of jump cut edits to keep the action moving. This has both benefits and drawbacks – the downside is that some plot developments occur off screen and create a jarring leap in the narrative. The bonus is that the jokes are doubly funny as we get the set up then the aftermath in one foul swoop, without labouring the point.

Unequivocally it is the casting which makes this a success. Jean Reno is his usual, unshaven, inexpressive anti-hero self, who talks with his fists over words, bouncing naturally off the giddy fervour and wide eyed innocence of Gérard Depardieu’s Quentin. Rather slimmer than we have seen him of late, this is a treat to see Depardieu so lively and personable, while keeping Quentin’s fresh and consistent throughout, never once betraying his obvious good nature.

With its mixture of slapstick comedy, visual gags and witty wordplay, there is plenty of amusement to be had here, yet the tone manages to flit between this as and the crime drama aspect of Ruby’s revenge, the gap being bridged by car chases and other physical shenanigans.  

A buddy movie with a difference, Shut Up! shows that the often quirky French sense of humour can translate across to this side of the channel without a single thing being lost. Great fun!


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