Dir. Bertrand Blier. France, 2003. 86 mins.
Cannes selectors must have been pretty desperate to drag this dubious comedy, met at the end of its press screening with vociferous booing, into the world's most prestigious film competition. Adapted from Blier's stage debut, which was a hit, this is simply a dialogue-driven assembly of occasional one-liners and wisecracks, strung together for top speed delivery by two seasoned veterans of French stage and screen. An unimaginative adaptation about two old codgers desperately clinging to their male-oriented illusions and middle class values in the face of death, Les Cotelettes' appeal will be limited to Francophone territories that can appreciate the double-entendres of the language and are sensitive to the larger-than-life lead stars. In France itself it has had a poor reception, registering 78,049 admissions in its first fortnight after opening on 220 screens.
The first scene sets the stage for the vulgar comedy of manners to follow. Leonce (Noiret), a respectable bourgeois in his sixties sits down for dinner with his recently acquired 30-year-old new lover (Suarez) and his effeminate teen son, when an old gentleman (Bouquet) knocks at the door and once introduced, announces that he has come to piss everyone off. For all one cares, Leonce and the old man may be two sides of the same personality, the apparent liberal free thinker who is in fact nothing but a libidinous hardliner. It does not matter: neither is allowed to develop a distinct character, as they spend the rest of the film deflecting the anguish of old age and pursuing a plotless exchange of repartees on everything from politics and race relations to life and death.
Les Cotelettes is essentially Gallic boulevard stuff. What mostly concerns the two leads is their relationship with women, in particular the Algerian cleaning lady whose services they share and their concern for their own sexual potency. Whether the offensive sexist slant and the racial slurs throughout should be attributed to the author, or merely reflect his criticism of the French middle-class mentality, they will still go unappreciated by both female and immigrant audiences members.
Submerged under masses of text which leaves nothing to imagination and bans subtlety from the proceedings, Les Cotelletes is at best a tasteless romp that offers half-baked witticisms and pieces of wisdom. As such the material is better suited to the stage, if and when backed it is by celebrity leads. There are few in France who can compare with Philippe Noiret and Michel Bouquet, who have carried the Blier play through 300-plus performances and a national tour, and were naturally asked to resume their roles on screen. But Blier's adaptation under-utilises their formidable potential, requiring them to run through the lines at the top of their voices and nothing more.
Visuals, while prettily photogenic, are completely secondary and derivative of the text at all times: if a house in the Provence is mentioned, the action immediately moves to a lavish villa in the Luberon area; a line about a walk in the country elicits a stroll amid green fields. Suggestions made in the film's press notes that it is a latter-day version of a 1973 Cannes winner La Grande Bouffe - which starred Noiret - or of Blier's early hit Les Valseuses - are greatly exaggerated, for Les Cotelettes lacks the fierce apocalyptic anger of the first and the virulent irreverence of the second.
Prod cos: Hachette Premiere, EuropaCorp
Int'l sales/Fr dist: EuropaCorp
Prods: Rene Cleitman, Luc Besson
Scr. Blier based on his stage play
Cinematography: Francois Catonne
Ed: Marion Monestier
Prod des: Michele Abbe
Music: Hugues Le Bars
Main cast: Philippe Noiret, Michel Bouquet, Farida Rahouadi, Catherine Hiegel, Hammou Graia, Axelle Abbadie, Anne Suarez, Jerome Hardelay