6 Dark Comedies from the Continent: Laughing at Misfortune
Never before has there been such keen interest in non-English television and film. People are tuning into series like The Returned, Wallander and The Killing nightly and foreign-language films are finally being shown at an hour when respectable, civilised folks are still awake. Rightly so! For those of us happy to read subtitles the tube is increasing it’s dosage of world cinema and providing more niche gems for our viewing delectation. Despite this, that formulaic long-drop Hollywood continues after so many years to pollute the broadcasting waterways, never ceasing to churn out film after film of fuzzy romance, balls-to-the-wall action or – equally deserving of a big, fat, middle finger – banal comedy. Hopefully, with the recent peak in curiosity for foreign film, the gaps between the prison bars will finally start growing.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels as I do about Hollywood and the slow uptake of non-English titles. Don’t get me wrong, I find Adam McKay’s films as funny as the next person, hell, I’ll admit it, I’ve watched Step Brothers dozens of times. My hypocrisy aside though, if you’ve seen one of the many ‘Frat Pack’ movies you’ve seen them all. Same actors, same writers, same everything. Yeah I know, I’d be quite the chump if I weren’t to acknowledge these films as commercial enterprises; they conform to a blueprint that has been tried and tested, so, if Mr fat cat producer wants another tennis court for his Beverly Hills mansion, it makes sense to stick to it; mo’ money, mo’ of the same. Sure, it’s a shame this has become the global standard for film production, but if you’re willing, and wade far enough through the mire of movie pigswill, you’ll find that there are still a few movies being made around the world without the drooping teat of globalisation obscuring the lens – particularly in mainland Europe. (I realise the irony of globalisation being both the reason for the success of Hollywood and for the recent influx of foreign language productions). Money still plays a part, naturally, but the ideas appear to be of equal importance. I’d like to say that this is because European film makers are less concerned with money – I have a feeling that it is more likely due to the comedies being made here not involving foot-through-windscreen car chases and bear fights.
There is a line of thought that sees much of European film as being artsy, conceited bilgewater – up with which I will not put! It is thinking like this that has turned many away from a range of brilliantt movies; and for the record, dipping a toe into Amélie does not constitute a foray into Europe’s finest! Some films are certainly august, others certainly stern, they are not, however, the standard by which to gage all European cinema. Here too there is a deep rooted tradition of comedy – astounding as it may seem – that displays a distinctly continental sense of humour. Oftentimes that humour is of a slightly darker hue, which, when you consider the continent’s turbulent past and the endless list of pessimists it has produced, is not so surprising: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Cioran, Céline, Camus, Foucault, Zapffe, Baudrillard to name but a handful.
I have chosen 6 of the darkest films – Mariana Trench, ocean floor dark – that will hopefully illuminate a side of European cinema oft overlooked. Subtitles are no excuse. I can’t attest to their accuracy, not being a multi-linguist, but I trust the films’ ambiences are taken into account and comedic intent is conveyed nonetheless. The selection won’t be to everyone’s taste, in fact it may be to very few people’s, and, if watched, there will definitely be times when laughter seems the most inappropriate of responses, but I challenge you not to. Though hardly a panacea for the pestilence of Hollywood numbskullery, these films have won a plethora of worldwide accolades and laugh in the face of Hollywood like Major ‘King’ Kong riding the bomb.
6. Delicatessen (1991)
In this outing from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Jeunet also directed Amélie), a tale of desperate love and cannibalism in post-apocalyptic France, we’re thrust into a beehive of tenement theatrics. Clapet, the landlord of the apartment building and delicatessen upon which it resides, centre of most of the action, uses an ad in the newspaper for what seems an ever vacant maintenance position at the building. Unaware of the ominous implications this job has, Louison (Dominique Pignon), an unemployed circus clown, unwittingly moves in as the next course. When he becomes the object of Clapet’s demure daughter’s affections however, his already precarious position becomes fraught with yet more obstacles.
Alongside a rogues gallery of residents all struggling to make ends meat and avoid Clapet’s cleaver – a man who lives in the flooded basement surrounded by frogs and snails, the woman who repeatedly attempts suicide because of the voice in the pipes, and the moo-box makers – Louison and Julie’s romance takes place under the burgeoning shadow of Clapet’s loss of control. Added to this, Julie, in trying to protect her beau, enlists the help of the ‘Troglodistes’, a group of vegetarian rebels who live in the sewers beneath the city. Their intervention in the affairs of the building lead to a climax in which social structure and the structure of the building itself are gutted and ground. By far the most family-friendly film on the list, Delicatessen is ultimately a heart-warming tale of love in a world where love should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
5. The Ordeal (Calvaire) (2004)
Walking a pencil-thin line between backwoods thriller and asylum comedy, The Ordeal plays like the inbred offspring of Deliverance and Misery. Laurent Lucas, a recurring actor in the films James Quandt termed the ‘New French Extremity’, with which Calvaire is often grouped, despite being Belgian, plays Marc Stevens, a club singer in pursuit of brighter horizons. After his car breaks down on the way to his next gig, he is rescued by a bizarre, local Samaritan, who takes him to a nearby inn owned by Paul Bartel, a most hospitable country-fellow. From here Marc’s prospects begin to spill like sand through Fate’s fingers.
Having been reassured that he will be back on the road in no time, his hopes are swiftly crushed as he gradually discovers his new host’s sinister intentions and the abnormal natives of this deranged enclave of Belgian countryside. What follows is… well, an ordeal; a collage of brutality, horrendously awkward comic moments and the downright disturbing.
Taking it’s cues from movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which people always seem to overlook as a masterpiece of black comedy, Calvaire is rife with all the elements that make horror movies of this ilk so compelling: near escapes, meat hook-esque set pieces and a motley collection of villagers who aren’t afraid to show their livestock the amorous attentions they deserve. What more could you want?!
4. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) (2005)
There have been some great films falling the warm bowels of Romania recently, and this is no exception. An epic piece of tragicomedy from a director whose work never seems to disappoint, Cristi Puiu, The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a two and a half hour journey from hospital to hospital as Mr Lazaresu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is repeatedly neglected by his nation’s healthcare service. At every turn having to prove himself worthy of the attention bestowed upon him by medical professionals, Lazarescu finds himself at odds with a prevailing attitude of apathy and insensitivity.
With an almost documentary-like aesthetic, the film is so engaging and the viewer so engrossed in the deteriorating plight of Lazarescu that the film’s 150 minute length is a matter of insignificance.
While the film can be at times utterly infuriating, as every viewer capable of even a modicum sympathy longs for Lazarescu to come across some tenderness in hospitals where it’s as elusive as Godot, it is also a poignant examination and critique of Romania’s inept healthcare service. And, as hard as it may be for such disheartening and realistic subject matter to take on a comedic air, Puiu’s effort really does. Perhaps this subject, having the potential to become a very intimate concern of our own, allows us to laugh at Lazarescu’s situation while he lives out our fears of being treated poorly in a similar position. Whatever it is, this film has made it work and in so doing has found itself laden with laurels and silverware.
3. Taxidermia (2005)
A delightfully bizarre tale of 3 successive generations of a Hungarian family, Taxidermia, the brainchild of György Pálfi, is a hard-to-pin-down romp that takes us all the way from the Second World War right up to the present day. Beginning with a dim-witted soldier and the circumstances surrounding his son’s conception, we move on to the most substantial section of the film dealing with Morosgoványi, the soviet speed eater, and finally on to the third generation, that of Lajoska the taxidermist.
At times comedy, others drama, others gristle-chewingly visceral (not however, horror, as reviewers would have you believe – maybe it was marketed as such), Taxidermia looks at the period of each character’s life leading up to the creation of their heir, except in the case of Lajoska (though he could be considered as leaving a legacy of sorts).
There are a few moments that make this film the subject of some controversy – for those of a somewhat sensitive disposition at least – namely animal slaughter and a scene featuring unsimulated sex, but on the whole it’s not so bad. To compliment these brief transgressions there is an overt concern with the body, its expanding boundaries and inmost recesses, that thread the stories together and provide a seam of abject grotesquery throughout the film.
Perhaps a little difficult for the squeamish, this movie will have you chuckling and squirming in equal measure.
2. Sitcom (1998)
Sitcom was the second of Francois Ozon’s films I saw, after Regarde la Mer, a more serious piece by the director. It is what can only be described as a tour de force of domestic transgression – think Modern Family with a dash of incest, murder and S&M, and you’ve almost got it, sort of. The film follows a French nuclear family and the various people who intrude upon their less than idyllic homestead.
The disturbances begin when père brings home a white rat. Seemingly innocuous, this little rodent acts as the catalyst for the family realising their deepest, darkest desires, most of which lay a touch south of ‘decent’. There is a lot going on in this household; too much for me to recount in this superficial overview but the one stand-out performance I will mention is Marina de Van’s (pictured). De Van, a frequent collaborator of Ozon, both writing and acting, who a few people may recognise from the brilliant Dans ma Peau, plays Sophie, the depressed daughter of the piece whose failed suicide leaves her paraplegic. Her deadpan performance, for me, is the highlight of the movie – especially during the scenes in which she explores new ways of expressing her sexuality after her debilitating fall.
The thing that makes Sitcom so funny isn’t the taboo-busting antics but their context; that a tiny rat should force this repressed, middle class family into a cocktail of bizarre capers, is part of the film’s brilliance. Definitely one to watch.
1. Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous) (1991)
Following the exploits of erudite serial-killer Ben, Man Bites Dog is a spoof documentary of the blackest pitch and my favourite of the six films on the list. Directed by and starring Remy Belvaux as himself, the director of the documentary, the viewer is given an insight into the horrific exploits of the genuinely likeable character of Ben as his life is captured on film.
Like the beginning of every month, Ben’s onscreen debut starts with him offing a postman – one of a lengthy montage of killings – after which he reveals to the viewer certain secrets of his ‘trade’ – most notably ballast ratios for sinking bodies. Although this film opens as a fairly objective exercise in documentary making, it soon descends into an ever complicated spiral of complicity for the crew, as they share Ben’s profits, help him dispose of bodies and even act as accessories to his crimes. Their participation comes at a price, however, as the crew are frequently forced to hire new soundmen having lost them as collateral to their dangerous task.
What makes Man Bites Dog so genius as a film is not so much the murders (although there are some amusing ones), it is getting to know Ben and listening to his outpourings on life and the state of his native Belgium. There are some really quite bleak bits in this film, only accentuated by the fact that it’s shot in black and white, but there are also moments of gun-shell warmth: Ben with his family and the growing fondness he exhibits for his tentative documenters show the bizarre juxtaposition of this quirky but nice guy and his savage calling.
The thing to remember about all these films is that they’re not half as bad as I or any other reviewer would have you believe. It’s all just sensationalism. Don’t take my word for it, steady your nerves and jump in, but be prepared to redden in the cheeks as you laugh at the grave events unfolding onscreen.
What do you think? Leave a comment.