Every Friday, our resident film fanatic Alex Aciman will dig deep into the pile of cinematic masterpieces and fish out one forgotten classic you should watch soonest.
If ever there was a film that caused me actual physical harm from laughter, it’s the 1972 French film L’aventure, c’est l’aventure. This iconic French comedy, despite remaining almost entirely unknown to American audiences even when it came out, was the equivalent of a French supergroup. It was directed by Claude Lelouch, one of the greatest directors of the ’60s whose work includes the cinema classic A Man and a Woman. The cast was star-studded: French crooner Jacques Brel acts alongside Lino Ventura, who at that point had earned a reputation as a serious film actor. And most important was a guest appearance by French singer Johnny Hallyday. Hallyday, who died last December, remains virtually unheard of in America but was probably the most loved person in all of French history—a true national treasure, an institution, often referred to only by his first name, adored with such an earnest and unwavering ardor that America has simply never lavished upon any person. It’s the kind of love usually reserved for a monarch.
The film is essentially the story of Ocean’s 11, except for everyone is grossly incompetent. A group of petty criminals band together in order to execute a series of heists that almost all somehow go wrong. In a decade that brought forth a string of serious heist movies, here was a film by a renowned director and a Thespian cast that took nothing serious at all. They refused to romanticize grand larceny. Each character is so thoroughly, misguidedly convinced of his own criminal aptitude but has absolutely none of the classic movie-outlaw swagger. Here instead is a group of men with an unparalleled ability to accidentally wreak havoc on everything they touch. When the French government finally catches up to this band of thieves, it realizes that it wants literally nothing to do with them; instead of putting them in prison, the government ships them off to Africa. And on the way to the airport, they accidentally end up in a car chase.
L’aventure, c’est l’aventure is a glimpse into Mediterranean French humor. It’s deeply ironic, almost tragic if it weren’t so funny. And yet it is tender at times, too. The band of thieves treat each other with a kind of ridicule that looks as much like warmth and affection as it does derision.
It’s a film about a group of men who operate with complete confidence in their own ruses and machinations as if confidence alone can carry a harebrained scheme. As if willing it will make it true. And even when it does work, something always goes wrong. They can steal you a car in 30 seconds, but rarely have an escape plan. Time and again these men get so swept up by all the excitement and criminal merriment of their friendship that they end up with a plan that isn’t entirely thought through. It’s like the early DNA of what would become It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Nobody is impervious to the inanity of their collective (extremely flawed) thought process. Even Lino Ventura, who essentially acts as the dad of the group, eventually relents and goes along with these plans. He too gets swept up, and in one scene finds himself trying to pull off a heist while impersonating an American businessman despite not knowing any English whatsoever. And sometimes these men will even surprise you and each other, and pull off something extraordinary by relying entirely on their shameless criminal instincts. At one point they even kidnap Johnny Hallyday for ransom, who is surprisingly cool about the whole ordeal.
This film is so funny in fact that in a scene near the end, Jacques Brel breaks character and starts laughing. They left it in, I imagine, because after 70 takes they figured trying to get someone not to laugh was pointless. It was pointless.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.