Synopsis: French comedy writing sensation Francis Veber (The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, La Cage Aux Folles) created a wildly successful comedy duo with Depardieu and Richard. “A charming hilarious team with laughs galore” — William Wolf, Gannett News. After unsuccesfully searching for a French tycoon’s missing daughter in Mexico, Campana (Depardieu) is grudgingly saddled with accident-prone accountant Perrin (Richard).
La Chèvre 7.25
One month after the disappearance of his daughter, likely the most unfortunate woman in the world, and having found no trace of her, a businessman resorts to sending the most unlucky man he can find on her trail – in the hope that he will trip up in exactly the same way as she did and eventually locate her. The plan: pair him up with a seasoned private investigator so that he may be able to follow our hapless man’s lead.
This man, François Perrin (played with blissful innocence by Pierre Richard), is oblivious of this strategy, of course, believing that he has been picked legitimately, for his instincts alone. And not only is he ignorant of his boss’ ploy: he also doesn’t seem to realize just how unlucky he is – he shrugs off each misfortune as though it were wholly unrelated to him, as though it were a common occurrence.
Richard does a fantastic job with Perrin: he plays him straight, injecting him with pride, resolve and a sense of dignity. In Richard’s hands, Perrin is entirely believable: he’s a regular guy who runs into all sorts of trouble but simply believes that life is unreliable, that all sorts of things will happen – and frequently do. He’s not surprised when the world collapses around him, so he just rolls with it, adapts with a resilience and spirit that few could muster.
And that’s where the humour comes in – not just in the moronic accidents that he finds himself in, but in his reactions, in his contented obliviousness. Where Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau would pratfall and chew the scenery with glee, Richard’s Perrin stumbles, regains his composure and moves on. But we’re in on the joke and he’s not; as outsiders looking in, we are able to laugh at each incident instead of feeling sorry for him (as we normally would in real life, as bystanders).
There’s no guilt involved in the viewer’s lack of sympathy during ‘La Chèvre’ (translation: “The Goat”). By having a stand-in, a proxy, in the form of Campana, the private detective who must follow Perrin everywhere he goes, who observes everything with utter seriousness, we are given permission to chuckle at each of Perrin’s missteps – he already has a watchful eye completely fixated on him so that we need not have to. Not that Campana actually sympathizes with him. Instead, he watches Perrin with the curiosity of a scientist, with scepticism and wonderment, waiting patiently to see what will happen next.
Depardieu is amazing here. As far as I’m concerned, the film would have been a complete waste without him. The way that he plays the straight man in this comedy duo -professional, incredulous, true-to-life- is pitch-perfect. His keen observation of Perrin, his subject for all intents and purposes, is an amazing sight; even though all he’s doing is watching, one can guess what’s going on in his head and how he’s piecing it all together. He’s also a terrific strong man – he imposes himself with total credibility.
It’s quite the performance, and it’s no wonder that the two paired up for two more films with writer-director Francis Veber; they are quite the team. On the one hand, we get a seemingly fragile bumblefoot who has more strength and perseverance than initially imagined, and on the other we get a rough, humourless, egotist who also has a certain softness, a hidden humanity, behind his gaze. They offer solid performances individually, but they play off of each others’ strengths even more brilliantly.
However, even though they’re a surprisingly efficient comedy duo (surprising because this was Depardieu’s first true comedy and his comedy chops had not been tested yet), ‘La Chèvre’ is by far the weakest of the Depardieu/Richard/Veber films. This one has very little story and mostly relies on the gags to carry it along, a few of which fail miserably. As well, it’s quite clear where the movie is headed and its conclusion is foregone, stripping it of the freshness it could have had.
It also loses steam somewhere in the middle, once our dynamic duo starts following a random trail through the desert and then from place to place. From that point onward, ‘La Chèvre’ doesn’t offer nearly as much as it did at the beginning. I’m not one to believe that a comedy should necessarily deliver the laughs harder and faster as it winds down (emotion is an essential component of comedy, after all), but it shouldn’t stall either, sputtering about directionless.
I was introduced to ‘La Chèvre’ many moons ago, when I in my very early teens, and a friend invited a few of us to his place to watch the movie. This was an era in which my eyes were being opened to the wonders of James Bond, Monty Python and other good stuff that I might otherwise never have seen (I didn’t have a VCR, and relied mostly on family visits at the local cinema to see movies ).
For years afterwards, probably until I saw ‘Airplane’ or ‘The Holy Grail’, ‘La Chèvre’ was the funniest film I’d ever seen. I didn’t get to see it very often in subsequent years, due to limited availability – but it got me interested in Pierre Richard, and when a festival of films played on television one summer, I made sure to see each one if at all possible. This was my introduction to French comedy. And I loved it.
Even though it has aged and isn’t as refined as I’d like nowadays, ‘La Chèvre’ remains a memorable motion picture for me. Granted, it’s rooted in a very simple premise, one that doesn’t allow for much character-development and/or scintillating dialogue, but it’s nonetheless filled with plenty of mirthful moments that elicit guffaws out of me each and every time I see it.
It may be the weakest of the trio’s films together, but it’s superior to a lot of similar motion pictures. As far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth it if only for its first half – after which, one can doze off peacefully, having laughed heartily at the expense of the unluckiest man you’ll never meet (and a good thing, too, because it’s probably best to watch him at a safe distance, where his bad luck can’t rub off even for a little bit and/or short while ).
Post post scriptum: And, for goodness’ sake, see this one first before seeing the American remake, the Martin Short and Danny Glover vehicle ‘Pure Luck’. Personally, I’ve steered clear of it for years, suspecting a horrible car crash of a picture.