Friday, June 17, 2011

Coup de Tête

At least three distinct sports call themselves "football": what Americans call "soccer" has the most legitimate claim to the term, since it consists of kicking a ball up and down the playing field and because it is played everywhere in the world; American football is more like rubgy with helmets and pads; Australian Rules football combines elements of rugby and American football.

The fans of these and other sports demonstrate why the word "fan" is short for "fanatic". Football madness is a worldwide phenomenon, and one of the best illustrations of that madness can be found in the 1979 French comedy Coup de tête. Written by Francis Veber, creator of La Cage aux Folles (1978) and Le dîner de cons (1998), it tells the story of François Perrin, employee of a factory in a town called Trincamp [actually the town Auxerre] and second stringer for the town's football team. Perrin runs afoul of the company and the townsfolk when, during a practice football match, he injures the star player, Berthier. Fired for this infraction, a string of mishaps lands Perrin in jail one night and he becomes the scapegoat for the attempted rape of a young woman.

As Perrin settles in for a long jail term, a bus accident enroute to an away game leaves the Trincamp team one player short. Since football takes precedence over everything else in this provincial town, Perrin is released from jail so that he can play in the game. As soon as the game is over, he is assured that he will be brought back to jail.

Under escort to the game, Perrin escapes and goes to confront the woman who accused him of trying to rape her. Unable to exact his revenge (by actually raping her), he surrenders to his captors and is transported in the nick of time to play in the Trincamp game. How he manages to become the town's hero in the game and how he turns the tables on everyone who wronged him is carried out in uproarious detail by Veber and director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Coup de tête was Annaud's second film, after having attracted worldwide recognition with La Victoire en Chantant (1976), which was stupidly renamed Black and White in Color for American audiences. (The English title, alas, has stuck so well that the French title was altered to Noirs et blancs en couleur.)

It was following the success of Coup de tête (I first saw it on its initial release, by Quartet Films, in Denver in early 1980) that Annaud embarked on his first super-production, filmed on multiple continents, aimed at an international audience, Quest for Fire (1981). In subsequent interviews, Annaud would look back on his first two marvelous films with an incomprehensible degree of condescension as "art films".

Annaud was evidently unsatisfied by the comparatively modest success of his first two films. He wanted more people to see his work, with the unfortunate consequence of his having to paint on a bigger canvas, make his films less personal and more "accessible" (that dreaded word) to wider audience - even if such an audience has no stomach for qualities like intelligence and taste. Annaud made more money, established his own production company and made an occasional breakthrough like The Lover (1992), which is magisterially erotic.

By now he has degenerated into a kind of unthinking man's David Lean. I found Enemy at the Gates (2001), by far his most commercially successful film to date, completely disappointing. I expected too much, I suppose, from the man who made Black and White in Color and Coup de tête

In Coup de tête, François Perrin is played by Patrick Dewaere, who first attracted attention as Gérard Depardieu's sidekick in Betrand Blier's intentionally outrageous film Les Valseuses (1974) (The Testicles, once again stupidly re-titled Going Places in the States). Handsome and talented, he made only eight more films after Coup de tête. He committed suicide in Paris in 1982 at the age of 35. Coup de tête, among many other films, shows just how much we all lost.

As Trincamp's company director, Jean Bouise is perfect - profoundly ugly, preposterously self-important, whose trophy wife (Corinne Marchand) is titillated by Perrin's antics. And France Dougnac is captivating as the woman who gets inadvertently involved in Perrin's vengeance on Trincamp.

Near the end of the film, Perrin tells a story to a truck driver to keep him awake. It seems to suggest that the whole notion of revenge is a childish fantasy.

"In the service, I had a sergeant named Colombette. He made my life hell for thirteen months! I swore I'd beat him to a pulp if we ever met."

"And then?" the truck driver says.

"Then, in a supermarket, not long ago, I did meet him, pushing his little cart. He smiled and said 'How's it going?' You know what I did?"

"No," the truck driver says impatiently.

"I said, 'Fine.'"

"Yeah, and then what?"

Perrin pauses. "Stop here!" he says. "Let me out here!"

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