Critics Week on laugh track

"Le Nom des Gens"

Trio of French comedies put an auteur spin on the genre

CANNES -- What do a killer tire, Isabelle Huppert and France's identity crisis have in common? Nothing, in fact, but all will likely make you laugh. This year's Critics Week sidebar features three very different French comedies Out of Competition -- opening-night film Michel Leclerc's "Le Nom des Gens," Marc Fitoussi's "Copacabana" and Quentin Dupieux's "Rubber."

From dramedy to political comedy to surrealist absurdity, these films are hoping to show that humor can be taken seriously and that "auteur" and "comedy" are not mutually exclusive.

The Festival de Cannes is synonymous with drama, emotion and occasionally even horror, but rarely do festgoers expect to walk out of a screening erupting with laughter. This year, Critics Week artistic director Jean-Christophe Berjon wanted to change that.

"In Cannes, we are often ashamed to laugh, but these films are generous and funny and show different types of humor and style," he said of the uncommon selections.

Fitoussi's "Copacabana," the director's second film after 2007's "La Vie d'Artiste," stars Huppert and her real-life daughter Lolita Chammah as a mother-daughter duo whose roles are reversed. Fitoussi calls the film a "dramedy," adding that, "Comedy is a more modest form of drama."

While the film does have many lighter moments, it also touches on some very emotional issues. "My goal wasn't to make people laugh out loud in the theater. It's more discreet humor. I want to move people first and foremost; the comedy is secondary," Fitoussi said.

"Copacabana" was produced by Avenue B Prods. and Kinology will handle international sales.

Big-budget French comedies continue to give the territory its biggest boxoffice results -- think record-breaker "Welcome to the Sticks" or last year's top titles "Coco," "Neuilly Sa Mere!" and "Safari" -- yet smaller indie comedies are having a harder time finding funding and audiences. However, Critics Week organizers are hoping that the "auteur comedies" screening out of competition will find audiences after generating positive buzz in Cannes.

"Comedies tend to please in Cannes because audiences need a breath of fresh air -- they're happy to relax a bit," Fitoussi said. However, just because comedies may be less heavy than other festival titles, it doesn't mean they're necessarily light on emotion. "There's a false idea out there regarding comedy," he said. "Just because a film may be a 'feel-good movie,' it doesn't mean it's simplified."

While big-budget, critic-proof comedies continue to see green at the boxoffice, auteur comedies are fewer and farther between.

More Cannes coverage  
"You're not taken seriously in France if you make comedies," Fitoussi says. "In France, to make a comedy, the financial partners usually want an all-star cast."

Aside from the all-star cast, they require a lot of preparation.

"If you want to make a big comedy in France, the typical time frame is three years," "Rubber" producer Gregory Bernard said. "France is very segmented. If you want to make an auteur film, you need to come from a certain school. If you want to make a comedy, you need to use certain TV actors."

All three films are hoping to bridge the gap between the different schools of filmmaking.

"Auteur comedies are generally too small or too provocative for funding from the TV networks and too big for small producers or state funding," director Michel Leclerc said.

Leclerc's second feature, "The Names of Love," marries romantic comedy with political humor. Sara Forestier plays a young, left-wing activist who sleeps with her political enemies to convert them to her cause, until she meets Jacques Gamblin's character, the Jewish grandson of deportees, and the two radically different characters fall in love.

While the story may sound improbable, it's actually based loosely on Leclerc's own life. The film was written by Leclerc and his real-life wife Baya Kasmi and the story is partly autobiographical.

"I always like to start with what I know and what's close to me, but also find the right distance so that other people can relate. This distance is created by humor," Leclerc said.

Despite the humorous scenes, "Love" also deals with serious subjects like pedophilia, the Holocaust and the Franco-Algerian war. "The most elegant way to talk about serious subjects is comedy," Leclerc said.

Gamblin, an actor known for his dramatic roles, plays a humorless ornithologist who works for the French Bureau of Animal Disease. He's far from the slapstick comedian usually found in films of the genre. "The people who make us laugh the most are usually the most serious. Gamblin's character is so serious, so we can make fun of him," Leclerc said.

Despite the film's provocative poster featuring a pants-free Forestier, Leclerc's comedy is more than simple just-for-laughs fare. "It's a comedy inspired by the question of identity in France today. Today in France, different generations have been mixed, so family names have lost their meaning. I like lightness in a film, but I also try to makes comedies with a point of view."

The auteur comedy was made for just €3.4 million and produced by Delante Films and Kare Prods., with co-production support from TF1 International, who is handling international sales. UGC will release the film in France.

"I'd be thrilled if comedy found a noble place in Cannes," Leclerc said. "It's important to me that the film be seen as an auteur film."

And then there's that killer tire.

Quentin Dupieux's "Rubber" mixes horror film with indie comedy in the very unique story about a telepathic killer tire as witnessed by a bunch of onlookers in the California desert.

Dupieux's tire takes on human characteristics -- it watches TV, stares at a naked girl in the shower -- oh, and explodes people's heads with its mind.

"It's very hard to put in a box," Bernard said.

"It's an arty, surrealistic comedy," added Realitism films partner Julien Berlan. "Quentin Dupieux is like the French son Woody Allen and Luis Bunuel never had."

Dupieux has become a personality among Parisian nightlife circles thanks to his alter ego named Mr. Oizo, a yellow puppet character that Dupieux then made famous as "Flat Eric" in several Levi's ads and a collaboration with the late Jim Henson.

The film was shot in just 18 days in the U.S. last summer. "We wanted to see If we were capable of making a movie in under a year that's a comedy, but still arty," Bernard said. "And the only way to do that was to not care about the cast and not care about the budget." "Rubber" was made for just under $1 million.

The shoot even finished early, one day before the production team had planned. "It was such a quick and effective shoot," Bernard said. "The actors were never waiting around and everyone changed in the same trailer, not like most shoots. But the actors loved it. There was a great vibe on set." Dupieux wrote, directed, shot and handled all of the music for the film.

The film will screen out of competition because producers and Critics Week organizers wanted to create an event around it. And so far, they have. A teaser trailer for the film has been circulating around the web for weeks.

The star of the film, Robert -- ironically, the same pronunciation as the word "Rubber" in a French accent -- the tire will be on the Croisette and available for interviews.

Elle Driver is handling international sales for the film that is still looking for a French distributor, among other territories. Producers are planning an untraditional multi-city distribution tour for the film. "We want it to be the next 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " Berlan said.

The cost-effective, time-saving production model could prove to be an example for "auteur comedy" filmmakers and producers across the globe, but especially in France, if the film is a success. "This is pure freedom. As a producer, freedom is the value we're fighting for so to prove that a film like this is possible is important," Bernard said. "With a simple script, a good idea, the will to do it, new technology and an artist that can work independently, you can create an original film in less than a year and still give the vision of an artist," Bernard said.

"Quentin is definitely in the auteur comedy genre, but it's a difficult genre," Bernard said. However, good buzz from Cannes screenings for all three offbeat titles may just put that difficult auteur comedy genre in the spotlight.