Synopsis: In this rural comedy Pierre Cohen (Pierre Richard) is a sophisticated Parisian psychologist who travels to his brother’s farm in Britanny to save it from a hostile takeover by a local landlord. The psychologist decides to save the farm by using the tricks of his trade — psychological warfare, as it were. In spite of his efforts, he cannot control every situation as he had envisioned and there is more than one loud backfire before his ideas set off a reaction that chugs forward in spite of itself, to a happy conclusion.
“Comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles” (which, translated literally, means “like a dog in a bowling game”) is supposed to indicate that something was unexpected and undesired. Imagine an excited dog being let loose in a bowling alley for a moment, and you’ll get the gist of it – there’s a lot of craziness and unpleasantness, even as the dog is having innocent fun.
But this expression mostly relates to a sudden arrival, so one would might say that their in-laws showed up “comme un chien dans un jeu de quilles” – especially on that one night that the kids are away and that the couple is finally together alone at home. It’s a question of context and timing, really; a dog in a bowling alley could be funny if you’re not actually trying to throw rocks.
This relates to our film in that our protagonist, Pierre Cohen (played here by Pierre Richard) is asked by his estranged brother, Joseph, to come help him save the family farm from landowner Alexandre. His arrival, after being away for close to two decades, creates all sorts of tensions and complications and throws a wrench Alexandre’s plans.
Anyone who’s seen a Pierre Richard film will immediately assume that he plays a bumbling idiot who trips over everything and everyone. This is not so. In ‘Un chien dans un jeu de quilles’, Richard portrays a straight man, a sophisticated psychiatrist who tries to use his pacifist, psychological approach to conflict resolution to manage the issues at hand.
The humour comes from his results not coming out quite as expected – he’s like a fish out of water, using tactics that are way over the locals’ heads. In his attempt to prove how brilliant he is and how simple-minded his opponents are, all he does is cause further chaos and aggravate the situation for his brother. Not that his ego would allow him to admit it, of course.
The key issue with this movie is in its attempt to fuse serious elements with various types of humour. Where French comedies often do this more successfully than many others, Bernard Guillou’s feature is incapable of finding that comfortable point that joins the two – not only does the humour fall flat more often than not, but it feels out of place in the film.
If ‘Un chien dans un jeu de quilles’ had been made as a straight drama with more nuanced humourous touches, it might have worked. If the film had been made as a screwball comedy, it would likely have jettisoned its emotional core, but would have been much funnier. As it stands it finds itself nestled in some place in between and it doesn’t achieve either.
It doesn’t make of ‘Un chien dans un jeu de quilles’ a terrible film. Hardly. It has plenty of amusing moments and a few noteworthy dramatic moments along the way. However, it’s one of those pictures that aspired to being something more, and could have been, but isn’t and never will be. And it’s too bad, a real shame.
I’d only really recommend it to Pierre Richard completists.