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Holidaymakers arriving in a Club Med camp on the Ivory Coast are determined to forget their everyday problems and emotional disappointments. Games, competitions, outings, bathing and sunburn accompany a continual succession of casual affairs. Written by
As the start of a series of hit comedies, it's promising, as an ensemble cast, it's wonderfully acted, and on its own, it's a cult-classic of French comedy (as 'Cult' -and it's a side note- in the French Dictionary, refers to something so deeply rooted in Pop-Culture that any quote, any character's name, any moment would immediately ring a bell) And the best measurement of a cult-movie's popularity is when people, including myself, knew about the film even before watching it.
And I knew that "Les Bronzés" ("French Fried Vacation") was directed in 1978 and was the very film to pave the way to a generation of comedians who'd define the new face of French comedy in the 80's/90's and even further : Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermitte, Josiane Balasko, Christian Clavier, Michel Blanc and all the other members of the 'Equipe du Splendid', who started on stage in the late 70's. Like a 'baby-boomer 'rat-pack' all these comedians would play a significant part to the evolution of French cinema in both comedy and drama by starring in the most popular to-be-made French movies. On that level, one of the exquisite delights of "French Fried Vacation" is to see all these well-established actors looking so young, with this sparkling innocence in their eyes before stardom would extinguish it. (Hell, Even Gérard Jugnot with his bald head and iconic mustache looks incredibly vulnerable beyond his average-Jean attitude.)
To those who grew up with these actors, "French Fried Vacation" carries a certain nostalgic feeling by depicting a slice of average vacationers' tumultuous lives at a time when everything wasn't centered on suburbs, drugs, or AIDS. Interestingly, most of these actors grew up to become right-wing supporters, when French comedy hadn't been overtaken yet by politically correct liberal artists and the dictatorship of cosmopolitanism (the same that condemned a film like "Amélie" because it didn't feature racial minorities). The 'Splendid Troop' is seen now as old-fashioned but it's still the most authentic depiction of a portion of French working-class youth. This is not to say that "French Fried Vacation" is dated, of course it has this strong 70's women-lib, sexual liberation feeling, but the humor displayed in the film didn't lose its appeal, and is still relevant by today's standards.
Indeed, never too militant or patronizing (a trend that tends to damage the credibility of French comedies today), the tone in "French Fried Vacation" is more realistic and satirical and tactfully flirts with a crude but never gratuitous vulgarity. I would say "it's politically incorrect in the correct way", because it shows the typical French people with no other purpose than mocking their own traits in a sympathetic way. The 'Glorious Thirty', referring to the days of economical expansion that followed the World War II, were over and the time of Louis de Funes, who was incarnating the good old petty-minded hot-headed successful businessman, lost its touch. In the late 70's, France was struck by the crisis, out-dating the France of Gérard Oury and the 'Gendarmes'. That's another thing that I knew about "French Fried Vacation", the film was a landmark in French Comedy.
And deserving more than a mention, there's one the most iconic French movie songs' adapted from a hit by Dalida, the unforgettable "Darla-dirladada", that became the quintessential vacation's themes elevating "French Fried Vacation" to its classic level, as it's impossible to talk about the film without having this catchy tune in mind, and its ridiculous yet classic choreography. The music defines the era's insouciance and free-spirited liberation. In "French Fried Vacation", they're sexually liberated, open to each other, and just want to have fun. It was the days where everything didn't have to be political, social or to carry a deep social meaning, before French comedy would be taken over by an irritating self-righteous dogma. "French Fried Vacation" is like a breath of fresh air that swept off the dust over old French comedy, but makes new Comedy look even worse
All that I knew before watching the film wasn't disappointed when I did and the film only got better after each viewing. Directed by Patrice Leconte, who'd make more ambitious films in the future, it has this awkward directorial debut feeling but nonetheless it's carried by powerful performances from every single actor. It really shows that these actors started on stage. Every movie fan know these characters with the same tenderness as if they were family members, there is the average couple with some emotional problems : Bernard (Gérard Jugnot) and Nathalie (Josiane Balasko), the handsome staff-member Popeye (Thierry Lhermitte) who behind his womanizer's facade, hides a more poignant touch of immaturity, Jerome the doctor, played by a more subtle and nuanced Chritian Clavier (before he would be the clowny Jacquouille from "The Visitors") and of course, at the top, there is Jean- Claude Dus, the ultimate loser, magnificently played by Michel Blanc, the perfect anti- model for all the wannabe womanizers.
Not only are all these characters wonderfully played but they're all extremely well-developed with a level of three-dimensionality that raised the film above all the other comedies. They're flawed people, but with a touch of realism and authenticity that beautifully combines between the laughs and the pathos: we both laugh at them but feel empathetic at a same time, a credit to the clever writing. Naturally, the film is not perfect and the structure made of series of sketch-like situations create the feeling of an inexistent narrative of storyline, but the pay-off is still positive, and the film doesn't lose its time creating a 'story' for the sake of it, it's just the joyful, sometimes depressing, sometimes ironic, journey of a group of vacationers, exporting their everyday issues even in vacation.
Indeed, if the movie opens with Gainsbourg's hit 'Sea, Sex and Sun', we kind of expect from the sight of the vacationers that only two of these three premises would be fulfilled.
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