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VENICE — French actor-director Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) unearths a rather unusual story that happened to Charlie Chaplin after he was buried in his tragicomedy The Price of Fame (La Rancon de la gloire). Though the true story, about two marginalized immigrants in 1970s Switzerland who decide to dig up Chaplin’s coffin for ransom money, is quite small, Beauvois manages to turn it into something big, brash and even quite moving through sheer mastery of the filmmaking tools at his disposal. This should do solid numbers when it’ll be released in France, and will be more of a specialty item abroad, though the material offers enough marketing hooks for savvy arthouse distributors everywhere to get their money’s worth.
As a director, Beauvois’ material, including the monks-in-Algeria drama Of Gods and Men, the dark and character-focused police procedural The Young Lieutenant and the depressingly titled Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die, has tended to be dramatic and almost solemn. So The Price of Fame, though more of a tragicomedy than a real comedy, presents a welcome change of pace for the filmmaker.
Inspired by a true story that involved a Bulgarian and a Polish immigrant in Vevey, in Francophone Switzerland, the screenplay, written by the director and his Of Gods and Men co-screenwriter Etienne Comar, imagines the Belgian crook Eddy (Poelvoorde), who’s picked up when he’s released from prison for a minor offence by his friend Osman (Roschdy Zem), of Algerian origins.
Osman, a hard-working municipal handyman who leaves in a leaky home — hovel would perhaps be a more appropriate word — doesn’t want to get involved in any shady activities, though he helps out Eddy by offering a trailer for him to live in for reasons only revealed later (“it’s a question of principles,” he explains). However, the towering health-care costs of his hospitalized wife, Noor (Lebanese actress and occasional director Nadine Labaki), some expensive university dreams and the needs of their cute, 7-year-old daughter, Samira (Seli Gmach), push him to accept a crazy job offer from Eddy.
The plan involves digging up the coffin of Charlie Chaplin’s, who was buried in a cemetery only a few miles from where Osman lives just after Eddy’s release (the Chaplin family mansion’s in Vevey). Beauvois beautifully integrates the news of Chaplin’s death, seen on a tiny TV that Eddy has offered Osman for Christmas, which Osman is suspicious about because he’s unsure where the penniless Eddy got that TV from in the fist place.
The TV thus becomes a nifty screenplay device, allowing the director to suggest something about Osman and Eddy’s characters while at the same time planting the seed for Eddy’s plans, as the programming drops hints about Chaplin’s great wealth and his clear appeal as a friend of the common people right inside the odd household made up of Osman, Eddy and little Samira. The film is full of nifty little scenes that serve several purposes at once, such as Osman’s declaration of love to his wife in the hospital, which becomes a source of character information as well as comedy because Noor fears either the doctor has given Osman some very bad news about her or he’s about to do something stupid.
The film turns from a light drama with sociorealist touches and the occasional moment of humor into more of a tragicomedy after the duo has dug up the coffin, an event Beauvois wisely chooses to film in a rather sober manner and without musical accompaniment. The real laughs come out of the lack of experience of the two with asking for a ransom (the “rancon” of the French title), with neither of them expecting to have to speak in English to the Chaplin family or to somehow have to prove they indeed stole the coffin since they’re the fourth callers asking for money in exchange for Chaplin’s remains.
The only thing that doesn’t quite work in the screenplay is the idea of introducing a circus, where Rosa (Chiara Mastroianni, Zem’s co-star in Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die) works and Eddy might find employment. The integration of this subplot feels forced and nonsensical, as if it were absolutely necessary for a film about Chaplin, even one where he’s just a casket, to have to make one of its protagonists a literal clown too. The talented Poelvoorde, rightly considered the best sad clown of contemporary French cinema, doesn’t need these particularly on-the-nose scenes to suggest that at all, as it is already there in every scene.
Unsurprisingly, Poelvoorde’s chemistry with the always-reliable Zem (Days of Glory) is just right, suggesting the two men’s complex bond that allows for moments of both shared hope and hate. Much of the comedy works exactly because the leads have made us care about their flawed but oh-so human characters. Charles’s son, Eugene, and one of his grandchildren, Dolores Chaplin, have bit roles in the film, though the most impressive supporting turn comes without a doubt from Peter Coyote, who plays the extremely dedicated Chaplin family butler.
In a calculated risk that should please fans familiar with older movies, the cleanly composed widescreen images of Beauvois’ regular cinematographer Caroline Champetier and the grandstanding, go-for-broke score by Michel Legrand (supplemented by the scores of a couple of Chaplin features) imbue this intimate story with a lot of old-fashioned grandeur. Their work elevates the story’s bleak period realism to a more universal plane and turns the two nobody protagonists — descendants, in a way, of Chaplin’s famous tramp character — into cinema heroes or anti-heroes, as the case may be.
One of the best shots in the film shows the two men in a car as they drive home in the dark after having reburied the stolen coffin elsewhere. The orchestral score swells, Gregorian chants and organ music start to play over the music, suggesting Osman’s mood, who’s convinced they might go to hell for their actions. Then, an improvised jazz riff joins the chorus, suggesting Eddy’s sense of liberation and hope for the future. Though neither says anything, their expressions change with the cacophonous noise on the soundtrack, beautifully suggesting something Chaplin would certainly agree with, namely that dialogue is often overrated.
Production companies: Why Not Productuions, Rita Productions, Les Films du Fleuve, Arches Films
Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Roschdy Zem, ?Seli Gmach, ?Chiara Mastroianni?, Nadine Labaki?, Peter Coyote, ?Xavier Maly?, Arthur Beauvois?, Dolores Chaplin?, Eugene Chaplin, ?Xavier Beauvois?
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Screenplay: Xavier Beauvois, Etienne Comar
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Yann Megard
Costume designer: Francoise Nicolet
Editor: Marie-Julie Maille
Music: Michel Legrand
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 114 minutes
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Tracee Ellis Ross