Dir: Gerard Jugnot. 2002. France. 100mins.
Only months after the commercial failure of Laissez Passer, Bertrand Tavernier's ambitious saga about the French film industry under the German Occupation, comes this blandly conventional feelgood comedy-drama. Gerard Jugnot's tale about an ordinary Parisian's moral resistance to wartime anti-Semitism is currently doing brisk business at French theatres, taking $4.27m from 525 screens after two weeks, and second only to French box-office juggernaut Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra. Overseas, where all-round centre of attention Jugnot is not as well known, its chances of success are likely to be far more limited, although the Jewish theme may play to certain territories with large communities. But international audiences hoping for another Life Is Beautiful should try elsewhere.
Tavernier's feature made the mistake of over-estimating potential audience interest in a three-hour film which was devoid of bankable stars and about a film world only of note to the arthouse crowd. In contrast, Monsieur Batignole, which popular comedian Gerard Jugnot has written, co-produced, directed and starred in, has connected with mainstream French audiences far better, with its morally clear-cut tale about a Jean Q Publique saving Jewish children from deportation.
The squat, bald, porcine-faced Jugnot, now 50, is one of the many appealing screen talents to have emerged from the once-fertile Paris 'cafe-theatre' scene. Since 1984 he has written, directed and starred in eight features, which at their best were a canny mix of social comedy and sentimental drama. His greatest success remains Une Epoque Formidable (1991), in which he played a business executive who ends up homeless after losing his job, home and girlfriend.
In Monsieur Batignole, written with his usual script collaborator Philippe Lopes Curval, Jugnot is a Paris pork butcher who runs his small family business in a well-to-do part of town. Were it not for the fact that his future son-in-law (Jean-Paul Rouve) is an anti-Semitic wannabe playwright who moves in collaborationist circles, Jugnot would seem destined to weather the Occupation without any concerns. But when Rouve denounces the upstairs Jewish doctor, about to hightail it to Switzerland with his wife and two sons, Jugnot finds himself confronted with the realities of the day.
Jugnot doesn't put up much resistance when Rouve uses his Nazi contacts to move his future fiancee and in-laws into the Jews' now-vacant spacious flat. But the butcher panics when one of the Jewish boys (Jules Sitruk), having escaped custody, later turns up during a housewarming attended by Nazi dignitaries. Jugnot hustles the fugitive up to a garret room, hoping the child will beat it once the coast is clear. But, of course, Jugnot suddenly finds himself in dangerous circumstances with a nascent moral conscious. And when Rouve discovers Jugnot hiding Sitruk (and two girl cousins who have joined him) in the cellar, our hero is forced to take drastic action. Now suspected of being a Gaullist agent, Jugnot boards an east-bound train, hoping to smuggle his three wards into Switzerland.
As a director, Jugnot has never had anything resembling a personal style, but has usually told his stories cleanly while steering clear of vulgarity. Here, however, he rarely seems to find the right balance of humour and gravity. This is in part because the characterisations remain superficial, starting with the reluctant hero himself, and what dramatic developments there are seem predictable. To his credit, Jugnot doesn't indulge in the kind of cloying sentimentality usually attendant on the theme of the Holocaust, as in Robin Williams Jakob The Liar. However, the, downside is that Monsieur Batignole never reaches any convincing emotional climax. Other acting credits are proficient, while the technical recreation of wartime France is spot on.
Prod cos: RF2K Productions, TF1 Film Production, Novo Arturo
Fr dist: Bac Dist
Int'l sales: UGC
Exec prods: Olivier Granier, Dominique Farrugia, Jugnot
Scr: Jugnot, Philippe Lopes-Curval
Cinematography: Gerard Simon
Prod des: Jean-Louis Poveda
Ed: Catherine Kelber
Music: Khalil Chahine
Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Jules Sitruk, Michele Garcia, Jean-Paul Rouve, Alexia Portal, Gotz Burger