A film made as recently as 1993 may not yet perhaps be called a classic, but Les Visiteurs, the highest-grossing French-made film ever made, is at least a classic in the making.
Les Visiteurs was co-written by director Jean-Marie Poire and Christian Clavier. The action starts in the France of 1123. A French knight, Godefroy de Papincourt, the Comte de Montmirail (played by “Jean Reno” who is incidentally a Spaniard, Don Juan Moreno y Jederique Jimenez, and a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy—perhaps a hint of where his political sympathies may lie) saves the French king in battle. He is rewarded by being granted the hand in marriage of the beautiful Lady Frénégonde (Valérie Lemercier). But he is drugged by a witch, and accidentally shoots his fiancée’s father—after which, understandably enough, she declines to marry him. In desperation, he consults a sorcerer, who says he can send de Papincourt back in time to stop the fatal arrow. But the sorcerer makes a mistake, and instead sends the knight and his squire, Jacquasse (played by Clavier) forward into the 20th century.
This signals a rapid-fire series of vulgar, vastly amusing incidents with cars, fast-food “restaurants,” telephones, toilets, toothpaste, cling-film, and light fittings—all of which prove that the French have as much of a genius for slapstick as for Molièresque wit. One reviewer described the film justly as “a lunatic blend of Time Bandits, Tati and Benny Hill.”
Accompanying the visual jokes, there are frantic encounters with modern French people—a black postman (who is set upon immediately as a suspected Moor), clerics, policemen, the incompetent sorcerer’s descendant and both Montmirail’s and Jacquasse’s own heirs. Understandably regarded as a dangerous madman by all the people he encounters (except, eventually, by his present-day relative, Béatrice de Montmirail, also played by Valérie Lemercier), The Comte is desperate to escape from what he sees as an ugly and diminished future. He is also outraged to discover that the family castle is now a luxury hotel owned by Jacquard, a superficially gentrified descendant of Jacquasse (also played by Clavier).
Jacquasse, by contrast, finds the new world beguiling, and starts to realize the freedom he may have if he can stay. After many hilarious vicissitudes, eventually the Comte succeeds in finding his way back to the past—but inadvertently takes with him an unconscious Jacquard instead of the calculating Jacquasse. The final scene shows a frightened and bewildered Jacquard awakening in a dirty puddle back in 1123. A follow-up film, Les Visiteurs II (1998), was poorly received, while an American version (Just Visiting, 2001) was universally panned.
Les Visiteurs works as well as it does not just because of the sparkling script and the sheer energy of all concerned, but because of the superb casting of the two male leads. Jean Reno, tall, dignified and suitably tonsured, is the very model of a medieval knight; one has seen hundreds of marble faces like his, staring up at chancel ceilings all across Europe, hands joined in perpetual marmoreal supplication, small stone dogs sleeping forever at their pointed feet, their Lady Frénégondes lying beside, frozen in wimpled beauty.
Christian Clavier, on the other hand, is the stereotypical medieval peasant—a figure out of a Brueghel painting, small, dark, squat, snub-nosed and shrewd—onto whose essentially bucolic nature his more economically successful descendant has grafted on a veneer of sophistication and frantic snobbery (starting with his bowdlerisation of an obviously unhelpful surname) to disguise his lack of social surety. Clavier’s puzzled delight, as Jaquasse, in “replying” to a telephone and pulling light fittings off walls, is mirrored by Clavier’s amazed horror, as Jacquard, in coping with these manic forces which have erupted into his immaculate, brittle world.
While the visitors from 1123 are treated as objects of fun because of their ignorance of technology and their dirtiness (and the king for his lustfulness), the people of 1993 are at least equally the targets. With the partial exception of Béatrice de Montmirail, in whose veins some of the de Papincourt blood still flows and who can therefore respond partly intuitively (an interestingly hereditarian, conservative position) the men and women of 1993 are portrayed as neurotic, panicky, incapable, and snobbish. These are people who think almost entirely of material things, and for whom everything is short term and contingent. They have little or no concept of continuity, of honour or dignity. Their frenetic, high-pitched, hygienic, aimless lives are contrasted constantly with the time-travellers’ calm self-possession and resourcefulness, even when confronted by fearsome horseless chariots or being set upon by truncheon-wielding gendarmes.
For the people of 1993, children are seen as a kind of dispensable (and expensive) toy, whereas for the Comte, they are he himself, a vital link in a centuries-long chain stretching from the beginning of the world into this unsettling tomorrow. They give meaning to his life, and lend urgent impetus to his desire to travel back in time to marry and sow the seeds that eight centuries hence will flower into two small, tow-headed boys. Looking at his distant descendants, he softens and murmurs, “Ah, the lineage! The lineage!” The watching Béatrice is clearly jolted into an acuter consciousness of her children as bearers of a grand name, an ancient noble tradition, and a physical link with her own and her country’s past. We know that whatever happens, she will always view her children differently as a result of the visit of her unhygienic, unforgettable progenitor. Just as the Comte’s way back to the 12th century is eventually found in a forgotten part of the former castle, so previous centuries loom behind all our short and shallow lives, dark and secret passages behind the colourful arras.