Mismatched Mayhem Awaits Patient Viewers in This Unconventionally Brash French Dark Comedy.
DIRECTED BY ÉDOUARD MOLINARO/FRENCH/1973
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 30, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
When it comes to getting in step with director Édouard Molinaro’s (La Cage aux folles) 1973 French comedy A Pain in the Ass (L’emmerdeur), many may feel that the film lives up to its title. Billed as an uneasy farce of two men of wildly different temperament and purpose becoming intertwined in a raucous crash-bang caper, the film sure takes its time arriving to any laughs. When it finally does, they are delivered most unconventionally.
But, once things fall into the comedic groove of their very bad day (around the twenty-minute mark, or thereabouts), the titular pain becomes not ours but theirs. To quote Mel Brooks, “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.”
A Pain in the Ass is the story of an increasingly chaotic afternoon shared by two men with no business interfering with one another. Will they end up all the better for their meeting, or will the simply leave a trail of toppled shelves, dented cars, and smashed doors in their wake? We are never quite allowed to know, but the scuttlebutt on the movie is indeed correct insofar as it is a comedy unlike most others. Between Molinaro’s dour, gear-shifting tone and the contained sensibility of seminal French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard, it‘s no wonder that it may take some adjustment to fall in line with.
Meet François Pignon, a timid and lovelorn shirt salesman, played by famed Belgian songwriter and sometimes-actor Jacques Brel (in his final acting role). Pignon crosses paths with a secret contract killer, Ralf Milan, portrayed by French-Italian tough-guy actor Lino Ventura (Touchez pas au grisbi, The Sicilian Clan). From their awkward introduction that quickly turns disastrous (officially shifting the film from a standard crime potboiler into the promised knockaround comedy) to a fits-and-starts car chase, to an inevitable confrontational finale, A Pain in the Ass delivers.
A Pain the Ass is nothing if not brazenly titled. This Blu-ray edition from KL Studio Classics retains the semi-profane English language re-titling of L’emmerdeur, as the film is known in its native country of France. Thattranslates to “The Troublemaker” and was sometimes promoted in English-speaking territories as “A Pain in the ___”. In 1981, Billy Wilder opted to remake it with his favored combination of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. That film proved to be the filmmaker’s final movie and remains unavailable on Blu-ray.
As mentioned, A Pain in the Ass is a vehicle of its own temperament. Even aside from considerations of time and place, it still stands as something of a comedic anomaly. It’s cases like this that make one grateful for a film historian audio commentary track. Here, KL Studio Classics has supplemented their new Blu-ray with just such a track from Nick Pinkerton. Pinkerton, though able to handle whatever titles he takes on this capacity, seems particularly in his comfort zone with this one. Consequently, he’s a bit more animated in his observations.
Particularly helpful is Pinkerton’s comparison of this film to the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy Analyze This, in which De Niro was doing the then-novel thing of sending up his previous serious tough guy/mobster roles. The same is essentially true, Pinkerton points out, of Lino Ventura here. The first twenty or so minutes finds him in one of his own such past scenarios, taking up temporary residence in a luxury hotel- his perch to assassinate a suspect in an incriminating case against “the organization”. Venture, it turns out, has quite the gift for dry, festering-frustration straight-man comedy.
But before he can get his rifle fully assembled, the dope in the adjoining room (Brel) bungles his own suicide attempt when he attempts to hang himself from the world’s flimsiest water pipe. The subsequent flood ensures a flurry of activity from a hotel staff member (Nino Castelnuovo), who, per procedure, need to call the police to report the attempted hanging. “No police!!” If Ventura’s character can’t fulfill his mission, then he’s dead meat. So, desperately, he spends the film trying to get Brel far, far away from him.
KL Studio Classics has done a splendid job presenting Coutard’s unconventionally mundane comedic cinematography with this release. In the way of extras, besides the commentary, there are only a few trailers.
It’s not difficult to imagine how audiences might’ve felt like the butt of a joke upon engaging with A Pain in the Ass. But then again, with a title like that, what’d they expect? It’s also quite likely that those who stuck it out found their way into it and ended up having quite a good time. Both actors are excellent in this mismatched mulling madcap mire. Fans of unusual comedy should not sit on the opportunity to grab this one.