'One Man and His Cow' ('La Vache'): Film Review

Pathe/Jean-Claude Lother

Jamel Debbouze ('Amelie') produced and co-stars in this Pathe comedy about an Algerian farmer and his favorite animal.

The French are sort of obsessed by cows — or vaches, in the original language. Just look at how they've infiltrated everyday parlance: A peau de vache” (“cowhide”) is a polite way of calling somebody an a—hole. When it’s pouring outside, you can say il pleut comme une vache qui pisse” (“it’s raining like a pissing cow”). If you speak French poorly, you sound like “une vache espagnole” (“a Spanish cow”). And when you’re really surprised by something, you can shout “holy cow!” or “la vache!” — an expression Frenchies still employ on a regular basis.

In the new bovine comedy One Man and his Cow — simply titled La Vache in French — an Algerian farmer’s dream comes true when his prize heifer is invited to compete in the annual Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris. He thus sets out on a long journey by boat, and then by foot, crossing France with his cow in tow and meeting all sorts of characters along the way, while learning some important life lessons in the process.

It’s a simple yet potentially rich concept that’s more or less botched by writer-director Mohamed Hamidi (Homeland), who dishes out an array of cliches and broad jokes before heading to the most conventional ending possible. Not that one should really expect too much from such a story, of which there are a few precedents in French cinema (including Henri Verneuil’s beloved 1959 Fernandel vehicle, The Cow and I, which is directly cited in a scene here), but it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t try to make something more original and perceptive, rather than simply milking a cash cow that should fill Pathe’s feeders both theatrically and on the small screen.

The film stars Franco-Algerian comic Fatsah Bouyahmed as Fatah, and two Tarentaise-race beauties as Jacqueline, who travel together from the tiny village of Bolayoune all the way to the City of Light, where the two inevitably take a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Before they get there, the couple — a running gag is that Fatah is more attached to Jacqueline than to his own wife (Hajar Masdouki) — run into stereotypes like a depressed French noble (Lambert Wilson) in his dilapidating chateau, and a thuggish immigrant brother-in-law (Jamel Debbouze) who lives in a housing project north of Marseille. (Cut to the scene where neighborhood kids spray-paint graffiti all over Jacqueline. Cue laugh track.)

While the side characters are of little interest, the main plot hinges on a sequence where Fatah gets unwittingly drunk one night at a karaoke party somewhere in Provence, and winds up kissing a woman on camera. When the picture gets back to his wife, he becomes the shame of his village and spends the remainder of the film trying to redeem himself, making a public plea during a TV news broadcast that soon becomes a viral sensation and sets up Fatah’s victory tour in the closing reel.

Bouyahmed seems like a reasonably good comedian, especially when we see him perform an Arabesque version of I Will Survive early on, but the material he’s working with here is of an extremely low order. Hamidi and his co-writers purposely shy away from anything remotely psychological or political, save for a vague reference to Charlie Hebdo and a violent labor protest that’s played purely for slapstick.

The fact that Fatah is an Algerian who desperately wants to make it in France is an intriguing idea given the history between the two nations — and given the more recent issues involving local French Muslims — but the director doesn’t know what to do with it beyond stroking Gallic egos with his portrayal of an exotic country bumpkin who loves Vanessa Paradis and can’t wait to get Jacqueline into the spotlight.

Not that a comedy should always be sophisticated, and this one perhaps deserves points for staying so sweet and simplistic. Yet it really feels like a case where a semi-decent script was approved after only the second draft, resulting in a shallow final product that tries very hard to please, but really won’t succeed in making you laugh till, well, the cows come home.

Tech credits are polished in all departments, including the cattle dept., while a jazzy score by Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf (Yves Saint Laurent) blends well with the film's picturesque settings. 

Production companies: Quad, Kissfilms, Pathe, France 3 Cinema, Agora Films, 14eme Art Production, Ten Films
Cast: Fatsah Bouyahmed, Lambert Wilson, Jamel Debbouze, Julia Piaton, Hajar Masdouki
Director: Mohamed Hamidi
Screenwriters: Mohamed Hamidi, Alain-Michel Blanc, Fatsah Bouyahmed
Producers: Nicolas Adassovsky Duval, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Jamel Debbouze
Director of photography: Elin Kirschfink
Production designers: Arnaud Roth
Costume designer: Hadjira Ben-Rahou
Editor: Marion Monnier
Composer: Ibrahim Maalouf
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: Pathe International

In French, Arabic
91 minutes