The first installment of "Au siècle de Maupassant: Contes et nouvelles du XIXème siècle" is an adaptation of "La Cagnotte" (The Piggy Bank), Eugène Labiche and Alfred Delacour's hilarious comedy in five acts. It is a good choice insofar as it already brings together the qualities which will characterize the whole series. Stylishly produced by Gérard Jourd'hui, its episodes are always based on well chosen works (by Balzac, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Hugo, Zola, Jules Renard among others) while being directed by competent filmmakers (Chabrol, Heynemann, Schatzky, Verhaeghe,...). They also benefit from good historical recreation (neither too cheap nor too ostentatious) and constitute a showcase for fine actors (Didier Bourdon, Mathilda May, Pierre Arditi, Michel Duchaussoy, Romane Bohringer, Michel Duchaussoy, Philippe Torreton...), often cast against type. To make a long story short, "Au siècle de Maupassant" is synonymous with good quality entertainment satisfying for any category of viewer, whether high or lowbrow.
To introduce the series, the producer has quite rightly opted for comedy, but of course not any type of comedy. For sure the tone of the play is light and the mishaps the characters go through produce laughter but the laughs "La Cagnotte" generates are never gratuitous. Sight gags or mere puns are never good enough for Labiche whose taste for satire is well known; what he really aims in his works is to criticize the petty-bourgeois attitudes of his characters, and by extension the low-grade "values" of the whole society. Which is exemplified in "La Cagnotte" by the group of friends from La Ferté- sous-Jouarre whose tribulations it depicts : if they find themselves in trouble during their weekend of "pleasure" in Paris, it is only themselves they have to blame. It is indeed their arrogant self- satisfaction that leads them to catastrophe. Or almost..., since thank God this is a comedy not a naturalist drama!
With made-for-TV"La Cagnotte", you are entitled to a well-crafted product, directed by one of those competent filmmakers mentioned above, in this case Philippe Monnier, and interpreted by a cast that ventures off the beaten path. French rocker Eddy Mitchell is not the obvious choice for the role of Champbourcy, a nineteenth century annuitant who takes himself seriously, but his performance is so convincing that after one minute or two, you easily forget who he is in real life. Likewise, Philippe Chevallier and Alain Doutey would probably not be the first choice of a casting director, but as two local notables, friends of Champbourcy, they are perfect. In lesser roles, Gilles Droit as harassed police commissioner Béchut and Ivan Cori, as dignified farmer Colladan's unworthy son, also stand out.
The direction is vivid, the angles and settings (a few exteriors are filmed in historical Le Mans) are more varied than for a stage performance. As for the script, it has been aptly reduced to the 60 minute format by veteran Jean-Charles Tacchella. Of course some secondary characters (the tax collector, the grocer, the greengrocer...) have disappeared in the process but the spirit of the play has not been betrayed. A last good point, common to the whole series, is the intelligent use of music of the past to illustrate the story. In this case, who could have been more in harmony with the superficial characters willing to live the Parisian life than... Jacques Offenbach?
I recommend "La Cagnotte". It is the well done first episode of a worthwhile series. which will probably make you wish to see all of it.
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