Synopsis: In this wacky French spy comedy, the chief of the French secret service wants very much to keep his job and stoops to chicanery to prevent rivals from closing in. He points to a man chosen at random from a crowd of people (Pierre Richard), and identifies him to his rival as an important spy who must be followed at all costs. In fact, he is François, a bumbling, good-natured musician.
However, his lack of any notable spy-like failings only serves to convince his watchers that he is more skillful and professional than they. At every turn, they redouble their efforts, leading to many absurd situations. For instance, they send a beautiful woman to try to get his secrets from him. Instead, convinced of his innocence, she falls in love with him.
This extremely popular film became actor Pierre Richard’s signature role, and he often used the character’s name in other films. This was one of the first successful screenplays by Francis Veber, who went on to write the screenplay for La Cage Aux Folles and many other successful comedies.
eyelights: the principal cast. the setting.
eyesores: the lazy writing.
I’ve seen ‘Le Grand Blond avec une chaussure noire’ very often since I first watched Pierre Richard’s ‘La chèvre‘. I was a kid back then, of course, but I had held some pretty fond memories of the film. I remembered it as the next best Pierre Richard vehicle (after ‘La chèvre’, of course), so much so that I even wanted to see the Tom Hanks remake to see if it was any good.
Let’s just say that my enthusiasm has waned considerably since: not only is it far from Richard second best film (‘Les Fugitifs‘ easily bests it), but it’s not even a terrific film in and of itself.
While it’s considerably better than its American counterpart, ‘Le Grand Blond avec une chaussure noire’ is nonetheless hampered by some relatively sloppy writing. It was the ’70s, mind you: this level of comedy writing was no doubt par for the course then. But it hasn’t aged very well; its lack of finesse and sophistication made me think that it might have been produced for youngsters.
Thankfully, it wasn’t goofy like the Hollywood one was, and those few moments were justified by having established the protagonist, François Perrin, as being slightly accident-prone right from the onset – so anything that got slightly silly could be written off as normal for him. And it never got too crazy, either, aside from one toilet sequence (which was waaaaaay worse in the US version).
What works best is the basic conceit of the picture: The head of a French spy organisation, seeing that he’s being set up by his underling, decides to turn the tables on him, leading him on a wild goose chase to bring his operatives out in the open. In order do this, he sends his assistant out to the airport to pick an average bloke as a patsy, making their opposition believe that he’s an undercover informant.
The assistant’s random pick, of course, is François Perrin, an accomplished violinist with absolutely nothing to hide and no shady past whatsoever. The opposition, now paranoid about what impact this purported informant may have on their fortunes, then feel obligated to try to dig up anything they can to unveil his “secrets”. Little do they know that they are fishing for red herrings.
If this concept had been executed by the Brits, no doubt that we would have gotten a terrific comedy out of it – perhaps something along the lines of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, for instance. The French can certainly do comedy, but this particular example lacks the subtle refinement required to make it as delicious as it should be; it feels slightly too juvenile to be entirely credible.
It’s a downright shame, too, because, in its failure to take itself seriously enough it also incapacitates its ability to convey its core theme: that even the least suspicious amongst us can appear suspicious when we look so hard that our vision blurs.
This is an important message in a world headed towards surveillance-statehood: Even when people have nothing to hide, it can be easy to believe that appearances are deceiving and then be suspicious of them; it is easy to foster and grow paranoia and distrust.
I wish that ‘Le Grand Blond ‘ had been able to make its case more coherently (and it was its intention, as evidenced by the closing quote from article 9 of the French Civil Code: “Everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life”)
Still, at its core, it is quite excellent. And the cast is as well:
-As per usual, Pierre Richard knows how to make his character funny and sympathetic at once – he’s an everyman who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Throughout the piece, he remains oblivious to all that is going on – and he’s most certainly not a clown.
-Jean Rochefort brings class to the role of Colonel Toulouse, the head of the French secret service. Unfortunately, he has to contend with a few ridiculous elements (such as the ridiculous bugs in his office), but he totally defines grace under pressure and exudes confidence throughout the picture.
-Jean Carmet, who plays François’ closest friend, a joker who irritates both his spouse and François himself, comes off like a French equivalent of Dudley Moore. He’s one of the key comedic elements of the picture because he becomes aware of what’s going on around François without actually understanding it – so he begins to lose confidence in his own sanity. He goes from being an obnoxious oaf to a self-doubting wimp in a short time, and Carmet does it quite credibly.
-And then there’s the vampy spy, as played by Mireille Darc. Thankfully, unlike her American counterpart, she is a decent actress. I also liked that she isn’t used as a lure until her team is really stuck – this one is an operative like any other, except that she is unusually alluring. I say “unusual” because she doesn’t have the curves one tends to expect from these types of women, and she has features that are reminiscent of the Olsen twins. She’s certainly not a typically Hollywood doll, nor is she typically French – she’s some weird hybrid. But she is nonetheless striking (in fact, she was for a time, a sex symbol in France).
The film is also helped along by virtue of being set in France. For some reason, it gives the film a more casual, more realistic, vibe than if it had been shot in the United States, which has a completely different flavour – and one that I can hardly imagine working for this story. Somehow, the leisurely feel of the setting helped make this story seem more grounded, more likely.
All this to say that ‘ Le Grand Blond avec une chaussure noire’ has its charms even though it is very loose, not taking itself seriously enough. But it was popular enough to warrant a sequel a couple of years later, and for Hollywood to consider making it themselves, which is saying something. It’s not a brilliant piece, but it is amusing enough and it would make for great Sunday afternoon fodder.
Now if only a clever writing team were to redo this, I’m sure that it could be made into a fantastic film – it’s an excellent premise and it is rife with comedic potential.
Date of viewing: January 15, 2013