Charlie Chaplin à la Française

Louis de Funès may be France’s most beloved actor. The choice tells us a lot about those who love him

Film
(Photo by Benjamin Auger/Paris Match via Getty Images)

A museum opened this summer in the south of France to commemorate the most popular French actor of all time. Not Gerard Depardieu, not Catherine Deneuve, but a short, bald, pretty much self-taught comic actor almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. The choice tells us a lot about the people who loved him.

Louis de Funès didn’t pay for taxis. He’d write out a cheque for the fare, signing it with his most magnificent signature. The driver would usually prefer to keep it than cash it.

It would still work now, probably.

Many of those queuing to get into the new Louis de Funès Museum in St Raphael weren’t even born when France’s most
popular actor died in 1983. Let alone their
children:

Me: What do you like about him?

Geoffrey (aged nine): His enjoyment at making films.

Me: What’s your favourite?

Geoffrey: The Gendarme de St Tropez.

[Funès’s Gendarme series, begun in 1964, had almost as many sequels as Star Wars]

Me: Is there a particular scene you like?

Geoffrey: When he’s on the beach.

Me: What does he do?

Geoffrey: I can’t remember.

I couldn’t either. I checked later. De Funès uses military skills that look as if they were learned during the Battle of Algiers to round up nudists.

People have watched de Funès films on the telly a total of 400 million times. He played in over 140 movies. A French person who hasn’t seen at least four may not be truly French. The new museum is also a good example of characteristic French dirigisme in arts policy. The museum, incorporating a largely existing collection of posters, photos and memorabilia, cost just under £1 million, all of it public money. It took only six months to build and open it.

The news weekly Valeurs Actuelles put de Funès on its front cover recently, simply to mark his birthday. Laurent Dandrieu, the culture editor, says the actor created his comic character during the “grey pasta years” of his difficult early career, struggling to attract attention while playing short walk-on parts. “He used grimaces and mimics and little accidents—when he had to walk across a courtyard, for example, he’d trip up on a stone or walk in a puddle—whatever he could think of to get a laugh.” The body and extreme facial expressions played a big role, presaging modern-day emojis. “He expresses with his face our emotions in their most basic and extreme form.”

Especially the  angry face emoji.

In a much-loved scene in the 1967 film Oscar, for example, our hero, a small business owner (a favourite de Funès role, along with chefs, waiters, and restaurantcustomers) responds to an aggravating phone call by furiously miming, Pinocchio-style, the elongation of his nose. As his baffled employees watch in silence, he twists it, chokes on it, strangles himself with it and repeatedly chops it off.

Like Charlie Chaplin, he always played the same character—a unique, personal archetype. But, while Chaplin was the soft-hearted little man, de Funès was smug, short-tempered authoritarian; obsequious with the powerful, cruel with the weak.

What could that possibly tell us about the French?

Sébastien Terreau, the creator of a Facebook page called “Just Louis de Funès” with 1.3 million followers, says his character is “therapy” for the French, who see their worst sides embodied and ridiculed. Clémentine Deroudille, the museum’s curator, admits: “I am very French. I get angry all the time. But we are capable of seeing this in ourselves and we are a little ashamed, because deep down we’re not so bad.”

In life, Louis de Funès was also—another French characteristic though not a comic one—a cultivated man. In the quiet of his chateau (yes, just as Hollywood stars live in villas, French ones have chateaux) he would re-write his dialogues, tend to his roses, and enjoy the piano that in his early, cash-strapped days, he played for money
in a bar.

He went to church on Sunday and read the classics—Molière for example, whose Miser he brilliantly portrayed in a film adaptation: in one church scene he sinks deeper in prayer every time he hears the shake of the collection box.

Some of his gags were not so much low-brow as 60 centimetres below it. And yet this year the temple of po-faced cinephilia, the Cinemathèque de Paris, is putting on a Louis de Funès retrospective for the first time. Three decades after his death, France’s most popular actor is finally being taken seriously.