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March 2010

La grande vadrouille

cast: Louis de Fun�s, Bourvil, Terry Thomas, Claudio Brook, and Mike Marshall

director: G�rard Oury

118 minutes (PG) 1966
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

La grande vadrouille

Cultural identity is a funny old thing. For example, ask your average British or American cinema-goer what springs to mind when you mention French cinema and you will likely receive a description of the stylish 1960s' productions of the nouvelle vague, or of dramas featuring depressed middle-class people who furiously smoke cigarettes before hopping into bed together. This image is largely due to the arbitrary nature of cinema distribution, the cinema distributors long ago decided that the kind of people who are willing to go and see subtitled films are the same kind of people who go and see art house dramas and so, while we can be almost certain of receiving France's best films at a nearby cinema, we seldom get to see France's most popular home-grown films: the films which, through their popularity, say something about French society that even the most liberal and high-minded of writers and directors might struggle to replicate.

If there is any truth to this observation then G�rard Oury's La grande vadrouille (originally released in English-speaking countries as Don't Look Now - We're Being Shot At, but here re-released under its French title) deserves to be at least as well known as the likes of Godard's Breathless (1960), and Truffaut's The 400 Blows. It is a film so central to France's image of itself that it still manages to pull in audiences of over nine million when it is repeated on TV. La grande vadrouille is not merely a film; it is a cultural phenomenon, which is just as well really as it really is a lot of fun.

Lost after a raid on German positions in occupied France, the crew of a British World War II bomber (including a perfectly cast Terry Thomas) find themselves flying over the middle of Paris on a beautiful summer's day. Promptly shot down by German guns, the crew are lucky enough to be rescued by some locals including a house-painter named Augustin Bouvet (Bourvil) and an egotistical and demented conductor named Stanislas Lefort (Louis de Fun�s). Though neither of these men are members of the resistance, they nonetheless decide to help smuggle the airmen out of occupied France so that they might make their way back home to Blighty. This results in a broadly comical family road-movie filled with laughter, action and some of the most fondly remembered images of postwar French cinema.

Primarily a comedy, the film draws as much energy from its casting as it does from the individual performances of its leads. Indeed, de Fun�s is a small man with patrician features who seamlessly integrates an air of dignified and yet tetchy officiousness with a manic physicality full of funny faces and strange noises. Meanwhile, Bourvil has an almost limitless capacity to generate comic pathos. His persona is that of a na�ve and sentimental man who is always on the receiving end of some terrible but hilarious injustice. In and of themselves, these performances produce moments of great comedy (such as de Fun�s' attempts to silence a snoring bed partner through whistles, clicks and bangs, and Bourvil's misguided attempts at seduction), but it is when you throw these two personas into the mix together that you see the true power of the double-act and the brilliance of the film's casting.

The comics' differing styles not only perfectly complement each other; they also seem to comment upon class divisions in French society at the time: the rich are forever taking from the poor who grumble and greet but ultimately put up with it. This dynamic pops up again and again throughout the film as de Fun�s first steals Bourvil's shoes and then his bicycle before eventually convincing the miserable painter to carry him on his back over a mountain because he cannot be bothered to walk. Aside from providing a rich comic vein, this class dynamic also goes some way to explaining the film's continued popularity.

In the aftermath of France's capitulation to Nazi Germany and the wide-scale collaboration that ensued, it was clear that the French body politic needed to reinvent itself. The political class needed the support of the people to rebuild the country and the military needed an image of France to inspire its men. The result, according to French historians such as Henry Rousso, was the creation of a pervasive myth of universal French participation in the Resistance. This myth not only emphasised the importance of those French who did resist the German occupation, it also downplayed the extent of the collaboration and the power of the Vichy regime. This cross-party political and cultural consensus was then fed to the French people through films such as Clement's La Bataille du Rail (1946), Melville's Army Of Shadows (1969), and La grande vadrouille.

Though challenged in the wake of the May 1968 riots through films such as Ophuls' epic documentary The Sorrow And The Pity (1969), the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought in the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films such as Army Of Shadows and La grande vadrouille.

However, even setting aside political and social issues, La grande vadrouille is still an intensely likeable piece of filmmaking. Its comedy is broad but gentle and warm-hearted, its direction well paced and imaginative (keep an eye out for a chase scene involving pumpkins) and the entire film is beautifully shot by Claude Renoir who manages to fill every single scene with an incredible sense of light and air.

Optimum Home Entertainment's release is clearly based on a pretty decent set of masters as the DVD's colours are wonderfully vibrant despite the film's advancing age. However, despite the care that was taken to get a decent copy of the film, Optimum do not bother with very much additional material, limiting the DVD to a rather uninteresting trailer. This is something of a missed opportunity as I think that this is a film in desperate need of reconsideration by English-speaking film fans.

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