There’s a lot to enjoy in Alain Resnais’s PAS SUR LAS BOUCHE (I’m slowly familiarising myself with his post-sixties career, aided by the fact that Fiona seems to enjoy all of them, despite never having cottoned to MARIENBAD.) In fact, what is there NOT to enjoy in it? But most enjoyable of all may be Lambert Wilson (above, right).
Lambert is playing Mr. Eric Thompson (NOT Emma Thompson’s dad, the one who re-voiced The Magic Roundabout for the BBC), an American in Paris, and with his exquise comic timing he is partaking in a proud French tradition — the unconvincing American. For while his attempts to speak French clumsily and with an American intonation are quite good, they’re not exactly believable, and that adds to their hilarity.
The first French talkie was LES TROIS MASQUES (1929), a Pathe-Natan shot at Pinewood by special arrangement with John Maxwell, the Scottish lawyer-turned-exhibitor-turned-producer who had been working with Alfred Hitchock. Pathe head Bernard Natan seems to have gotten along well with Scots — his TV company was co-founded with John Logie Baird. But LES TROIS MASQUES is a dreadful film, stilted and static in the manner associated with the worst of early talkies. It’s as if British reserve somehow soaked into the celluloid and stifled any Gallic joie de vivre.
Much, much better is CHIQUÉ, a forty-five minute comedy set in a Montmartre dive and exploiting that old joke about the American tourist who doesn’t realize the apache dance is an act. Adrien Lamy plays the American, who says things like “Pas Anglais! Amurrican I am!” He’s wonderfully, hilariously awful. The film is everything its predecessor is not — fluid, rhythmic, pacy, atmospheric, alive. Pierre Colombier directed it, and went on to make Pathe-Natan’s best comedies.
Another early precedent for Lambert’s perf must be the 1931 film version of the same operetta, co-directed by Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays Thompson. A Russian playing an American in France — I assume he’s enjoyable, but I haven’t tracked down the film.
My faulty memory tells me there are other examples of Frenchmen playing Americans, also Brits playing Americans, and also Americans who aren’t actors playing Americans, but I can’t seem to put a name to them. Let me know if you think of any!
Everything in the Resnais film is in quotes — a theatrical piece from a bygone age performed, archly, on artificial sets by artistes who disappear by slow dissolve each time they start to exit a scene, with a sound midway between applause and a batting of wings. Such artifice courts sterility, but in Resnais’s hands it’s both funny, the way it would have been on stage in 1925, and something else — a scientific experiment in temporal bilocation, perhaps.