How do the French do it? is question that may persistently nag the mind whenever one watches a sweeping, enchanting French story like the latest Francis Veber s directed film La Doublure ( The Valet ).
The reports released every year concerning the much talked-about flunking state of the French film industry, consequently, are a little difficult to believe.
It s true that American films still out-gross the local productions and the number of annual French films is nowhere near the heydays of the classical era of the 1930s or the 1960s when the French New Wave took the world by storm.
In addition, the French are now confronting the new emerging Eastern European cinema while the Germans have seized the Greatest European cinema crown for the past four years.
Despite all these mounting challenges, it s rare not to find a French film gracing the end-of-year best-lists of any critic anywhere the world.
Hidden, Regular Lovers, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Merry Christmas and 13 Tzameti are some of the masterpieces that have enthralled film lovers the last couple of years.
This year, the likes of Lady Chatterley and the Edith Piaf s biopic blockbuster La Môme have created quite the buzz and there s still no 2007 film of any nationality that matches the majesty of Alain Resnais comeback tour de force Private Fears in Public Places.
The Valet is a different kind of monster from the aforementioned serious art powerhouses; it s a short, simple farce romantic-comedy that s highly entertaining and unbelievably sweet. In fact, it s the funniest, most entertaining film I ve watched this year thus far.
The film revolves around François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh), a hapless, gawky, kind-hearted ordinary car porter who s in love with his childhood sweetheart Émilie (Virginie Ledoyen from The Beach and 8 Femmes ).
When Pignon proposes to Émilie, the young bookstore owner gently rejects his offer as she s always regarded him as a brother. She also asserts that marriage is not on her mind as she s totally overwhelmed with the debt she owes to the bank.
Meanwhile, the avaricious business man Pierre Levasseur (the great French actor Daniel Auteuil of Hidden, ), who s having an affair with the world s top supermodel Elena Simonsen (Alice Taglioni), is caught with his mistress by a paparazzi.
This comes after the mistress had decided to leave him since he didn t fulfill his promise of divorcing his wealthy, but shrewd wife (the bilingual British Kristin Scott Thomas of The English Patient who controls 60 percent of the corporation Levasseur.
Pignon happened to pass by the moment the picture was taken and accidentally appeared in the photo published in the tabloid papers.
When Levasseur realizes that a sudden divorce might end up his career, the CEO s men locate Pignon and persuade him to pretend to be Elena s boyfriend for a month.
To prove his love for Émilie, Pignon accepts the offer in return of the exact sum of money Émilie needs to pay her debt. Elena, on the other hand, demands Levasseur, who vows to divorce his wife by the end of the period, to register collateral of 20 million euros in her bank account that will eventually be hers if Levasseur fails to stick to his pledge.
What follows next is a series of hilarious situations based on the reaction to the unlikely pairing of the two.
Prolific director Veber is one of France s most popular and celebrated comedy filmmakers. His stories are always originally plotted and his situational comedies are never short of innovation.
Yet his narrative methods, characters and outcome usually follow a similar pattern akin to Molière s satires and moral allegories where virtue must be met with reward and vice is rebuked.
Unlike Molière though, Vebers stories stress on comedy more than highlighting social ills. His stories, despite their predictability, maintain a baffling uniqueness and an immense appeal inherited from French manners and culture.
There s a magical sense of glee and pure joy embedded with every scene of The Valet. All characters, even Levasseur, are tremendously likable. They re not three dimensional characters; their conflicts and life-pursuits are very limited and modest.
The Valet s world looks like ours on the surface but there s nothing truly real about it.
Because Vebers is such an accomplished storyteller, however, we never doubt for a second the authenticity of his world or his characters intentions. We root from the very beginning for Pignon, the underdog perhaps, as we recognize ourselves in him.
We know that Levasseur will certainly deceive Elena, yet, since we immediately fall in love with her, we wish she could find a tender, compassionate soul like Pignon.
We’re also positive that Émilie will succumb to Pignon s love and we enjoy every playful moment between them.
Vebers essentially replaces our inflating psyche with that of a child watching a story in utter delight as it unfolds to an end delightful enough to brighten the gloomiest of days.
The biggest laughs of the film belong to the eccentric, screwball secondary characters head by Pignon s roommate who, at the age of 36, still lives with his old, drunk mother and Émilie s physician father who falls sick whenever any of his patients call on him.
The Valet is not as zany or over the top as Vebers previous works. Nonetheless, it s equally funny, child-like innocent and the saccharine dose dripping with every moment will fill the hunger of those who ve been waiting for ages for a heartwarming comedy.
How do the French do it? The answer is obvious: It s their charm, intelligence, singularity and class – qualities that makes this small film much more satisfying and enjoyable than the tens of big-budgeted summer blockbusters about to invade and reside in our local theatres for the next four months.
Ah, these are qualities that Egyptian comedies have yet to learn.
The Valet is screening at Renaissance Nile City. For more information, please call (02) 461 9101.