I prefer funny films to serious ones, maybe because I am a pessimist by nature. I even have a faiblesse for really stupid funny movies, like Dude, Where's My Car? As Oscar Wilde said once, "Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow." It's easy to make a moving serious film -- life is serious. All you have to do is take a sad true-life situation. Even if the acting, script and camerawork are mediocre, that movie can turn out halfway decent. And how good an actor do you have to be to look somber? (Scarlett Johansson anyone?) To make a brilliant funny film is much harder. Few actors have good comic timing. The script has to keep you laughing. And the second people stop being amused, they get annoyed. No one ever goes out of a serious movie angry because they didn't cry! But people are irritated by films that try to be funny and don't deliver.
The Oscars almost never go to a funny movie. That's because the Academy is full of pseudo-intellectuals who need to feel they're smart. (See Oscar Wilde quote, above.) If they weren't worried about that, they would understand that it's a far greater accomplishment to make an audience forget its troubles and laugh than it is to make them weep or remind them that the world can be a harsh place (um, duh!).*
The French are great at funny movies. They stuff them with historical and literary references, cultural in-jokes, visual and musical puns, and great acting. Here is a list of my favorite ten French funny films. It was hard to choose!
These movies don't always translate well, even if they have subtitled versions. They're often not politically correct by American standards. But they reward a second and third viewing. If you don't like them... well, let's just say it doesn't necessarily mean you're deep.
These are not in any particular order.
Saint-Jacques-la-Mecque [which could be translated as "Santiago de Mecca"]
Siblings who loathe each other discover that the terms of their father's will require them to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela together.
I have several French friends who walk on the trails to Santiago every summer. The entire trail can take months, but they go for a couple of weeks at a time. This movie made me think it would be a beautiful way to see medieval France.
Jean-Philippe Smet is the real name of French pop star Johnny Hallyday, who is about as big in France as Elvis was in the U.S. in his day. This movie is about the life of his biggest fan, a miserable salaryman who suddenly finds himself in a parallel universe where Johnny never made it big and runs a bowling alley.
This movie, originally a play, was bought by Hollywood and made into a bad American movie without the wit and cruelty (to someone who richly deserves it) of the French movie. I went with someone who dislikes comedy and rarely laughs. He had tears rolling down his face the entire time from laughing so hard.
Les Visiteurs is about time travelers, a count and his servant from the 1200s who find themselves in provincial France in 1993.
La Cité de la Peur stars an older woman as the love interest, a French touch.
La Vie est une longue fleuve tranquille [Life is a long tranquil river] features a pair of boys switched at birth. One was raised in a working-class family with a mother who spits at the TV when she disagrees with someone; the other in a BCBG family with the children all dressed in navy blue.
Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopatre has held up to multiple viewings and is a favorite in my family. Gorgeous Monica Bellucci is perfect as imperious Cleopatra ordering her slaves about. Almost every line is a reference to something else famous, and it's fun to try to figure it all out.
Brice de Nice is a L.A. surfer wannabe, but he lives on the coast of the Mediterranean where the waves are one foot high. When he loses all his money, his invincible idiocy is all he can count on.
Mais qui a tué Pamela Rose? Another favorite, featuring deep-voiced Frenchmen intoning, "Nous SOMMES le F.B.I."
Les trois frères Three men discover they are brothers and set out to recover their fortune.
(All right, that's eleven. One for lagniappe.)
*The theme of Sullivan's Travels (1941)