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Under the 'dog' story, there's the 'underdog' story ...
Last evening, I saw the neighborhood kids playing soccer with a German shepherd who kept on following the ball until managing to hit it with the head, provoking the cheers in the whole street. This moment enough made me take "Didier" more seriously.
"Didier" is a modest French comedy with a little sparkle that reminds of some of the greatest American classics. The story is based on a simple, ridiculous yet full of potential premise: since a man reincarnating as a dog has always been done, how about the opposite: a dog trapped in a man's body, like a reverse version of the "Shaggy Dog"? This is, in a nutshell, the story of Didier, a Labrador played by Alain Chabat, also the director of the film.
Alain Chabat was the unofficial leader of a comedic group named "Les Nuls" (The Nobodies) whose sketches made of slapstick, absurd and parodies played like a French mixture of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. The 'Chabat' touch would reach its pinnacle with the adaptation of Asterix's adventures "Mission Cleopatra", the second-highest grossing film in France in 2002, but through the simple but so endearing story of Didier, Chabat already proved some remarkable capabilities. Indeed, the film works for two reasons: it isn't overplayed, not acting-wise and not story-wise.
Acting-wise: it's pleasantly surprising how restrained Chabat is in the film, and how he takes the role quite seriously, earning two César nominations for Best Lead Actor, winning the second for Best First Directed Feature.My choice of the word "restrained" shouldn't mislead the viewers, "Didier" is still a screwball comedy, but when put in the comical map of the 90's, in the same period than the sugarcoated, "Asterix and Obelix against Cesar", and the noisy and CGI-related "Visitors 2" when even the sleeper hit of the year "Taxi" was relying its popularity on an excessive use of actions and car chases, "Didier", on the other hand, is just about the growing complicity between Jean Pierre and Didier.
Played by Jean-Pierre Bacri, the namesake character is a laconic no-nonsense guy who discovers one morning that the Labrador her friend asked to keep disappeared, and finds instead a naked man lying on the ground and 'acting' strangely. There's no need to know more, why did Tom Hanks become a child in "Big" or why the same day kept repeating in "Groundhog Day"? As long as the reactions are believable, we're ready to buy any original premise, and we do.We do because for a while, we enjoy the sight of a man acting like a dog and it works even more because it doesn't look like acting, Chabat not only becomes a dog embodying the film's tag-line (the best in a man is his dog) but also brings him a personality, when we see him panting, smiling, woofing, we know it's not just any dog, but Didier the dog, and not any dog, a Labrador, the most intelligent breed.
The film involves the series of situations where we see him interacting with other persons, with cats and even having a date with a woman who naturally, takes him seriously. The screenplay respects the unspoken rule giving that the comic of a character only depends on his entourage's reactions, which supposes that everyone should act naturally. In the classic "The Visitors": if the two medieval men were considered as lunatics, their reaction to the New World was realistic, the same goes for Didier. But beyond the performance, it's less the premise that counts than the way it can provide new twists for the film, which leads me to the second strength of the film.
The masterstroke lies on the combination between Didier's providential metamorphosis and Jean-Pierre's job as a sports agent. When Didier takes the ball, he reveals some great skills, not surprising since we know that dogs love playing with ball. Didier grabs the attention of all the managers and is hired as a new Eastern-European prodigy named Didje Hazanivicius. Jean-Pierre becomes Dider's manager and uses some gibberish to pretend he's translating French to Didier. Chabat's mannerisms and facial expressions are the highlights all through the film, such as when Jean-Pierre looks at him, smiling, he says "Didier", to which the dog, who probably didn't understand, reacts with a comprehensive smile, with a kind of 'woof' sounding like "yeah" in French.
"Didier" is a great screwball fantasy and comedy of errors, that works thanks to Chabat's ability to turn the kind of story that would suit a sketch format into a hour-and-half film, without reusing the same jokes. What we got at the end is a good comedy, nice heart- warming fantasy, but also a great Sports film, with an unforgettable climactic match in the iconic "Parc des Princes" where Didier would demonstrate his skills to the whole world. Some scenes are absolutely priceless, proving that anyone with talent can afford to look ridiculous by acting like a dog. Players would even imitate his little dance after he scored a goal (one of the film's best images)
And as puzzling as it is, the ending fits the mood of the film, which doesn't need much explanation, we know that a story must end when a character's arc is closed and when Bacri understood a few things or two from his experience with Didier, we understand that this magic, driven by a superior force has no reason to exist anymore, and it's time to conclude the film, not with a nice little twist at the end to make us bark with laughter, literally.
One famous comic said against a renowned right wing leader, that there was more humanity in the eye of a dog when he was wagging his tail, than in his own tail when he was wagging his eye, needless to say that after Didier, you'll never doubt that there can be indeed humanity in a dog's eye.
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