Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset do Double Duty in Bloody 007 Satire
DIRECTED BY PHILIPPE DE BROCA/FRENCH/1973
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 8, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Mere minutes into the 1973 French lark Le Magnifique, the narrative ante has already been upped to the proverbial level of eleven. From the poster alone we’ve gleaned that this is some sort of 007 knockoff. Just look at the way Jean-Paul Belmondo is channeling Roger Moore- the image is practically oozing suave. Beneath him lounges a strategically modest in-the-buff Jacqueline Bisset, telegraphing her charms for all they’re worth. It reads not at all unlike the kind of straight-down-the-middle In Like Flint rib nudging that late-1960s filmgoers were stumbling over. Yet, there’s something askew about this… as though the curveball was always intended to hit the umpire. (Forgive the shameless usage of the wrong country’s metaphors).
Sure enough, we find ourselves caught up in an instantly absurdist level of overwrought secret agent adventure. The casually ultra-violent antics of Belmondo’s international super-spy Bob Saint-Clar ratchet beyond the pale. He dashingly grins as he sets aside his cigarette to machine gun an entire squadron of generically uniformed enemy goons. The degree of explosive bloodletting seems enough to repulse the likes of Sam Peckinpah, though the fun doesn’t stop there. Exploding heads and flying brains give way to rivers of blood cascading down the stone stairs of the villain’s blaster-to-hell lair. In lieu of a red carpet, the crimson tide is perfect for our hero and his rescued damsel to make their triumphant exit.
Previously, as our hero couple rendezvous poolside, Bisset’s sexy lady agent Tatiana abruptly spits something procured from Saint-Clar’s mouth while macking on his face. No sooner does it land in the water than he realizes (and I paraphrase), “My hollow tooth…! That was my cyanide capsule!” “Well, good thing it didn’t break open!” As they exit chuckling, they notice that everyone in the pool is now doing the dead man’s float. Oh, that was a close one, indeed!
All of that, and plenty more, occur within the first fifteen minutes of Le Magnifique. Between the amped-up-to-ridiculous levels of gore and blood, the lavish but derivative settings, and the Ken-Adam-but-crappy evil lair, it’s obvious that this 007 knockoff is attempting something more. This seems to be satire… bright, crushing, sledgehammer satire. On the block are not just Ian Fleming’s romantic conflation of Playboy-era masculinity and violence, but the ensuing cultural love affair with all of that. Apt, particularly for 1973- the year before Roger Moore’s James Bond took his first definitive turn into blatant silliness with his second 007 outing, The Man With the Golden Gun. In retrospect, that film feels like a toned down, lukewarm version of these sequences of Le Magnifique. Leave it to the French to jab the British whenever possible.
But de Broca is just getting started. Just as a large-scale beachfront battle is approaching a sanguine fever pitch, a cleaning lady (Monique Tarbès) running a vacuum cleaner weaves her way through the sand and chaos. She reaches a small wall with a door, and nothing on the other side. Very, very suddenly, we’ve crossed over into a what-the-hell? Python-level of foolishness, a spoof of the camp sensibility itself. This movie is still just getting started, and already it’s giving us overdone degrees of overreach.
It is here that things take yet another surprise hard turn. On the other side of the doorway to nothing is the world’s most mundane and dreary writer’s apartment. Meet François Merlin (also Belmondo), exasperated hack author of the never-ending series of Bob Saint-Clar adventure novels. If the debonair Saint-Clar is the film’s “hero”, then Merlin, as it turns out, is the true protagonist. The place is permanently grey, dingy, and in disrepair, signaling that no matter how much cleaning that the cleaning lady may do, it doesn’t make a difference.
But then, a knock on the door from a beautiful young sociology student (also Bisset) changes his drab course. She begins borrowing stacks of his novels- all research for her thesis paper that she will do… on the author Merlin. Like Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty movie, the nebbish real life guy must transcend his own fantastical self-figuration that his escapist fiction provides for him. Unlike that movie, the usual cooler-than-cool Belmondo is able to fully commit to the notion of himself as a loser nobody who’s been lost in his own head. Winning the heart of this young intellectual dream girl won’t be easy, though the hardest part will be getting out of his own way.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics new Blu-ray edition of Le Magnifique – aka The Man from Acapulco (that title a riff on the earlier very successful de Broca/Belmondo team-up, the 1964 Bond send-up, That Man from Rio). The colors pop as they should (all that spurting blood really screams “red paint!”), and the over-the-top settings- be they Fleming fantasy or humdrum hovel- resonate. Frequent KL film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson pile in for a very thorough group audio commentary, though the COVID-necessitated remote recording has resulted in varying technical qualities of the three voices. The disc offers both the original French and the overdubbed English audio tracks. The English track takes the film’s ham-fistedness to yet another level (albeit one unintentional), while the French track makes good on the film’s intended experience. Watch Le Magnifique for the first time in French with subtitles if necessary; the English dub is secondary variant experience.
The commentators, who are all big fans of Philippe de Broca, immediately cite this as his goriest film. (An honor that lands like calling Spinal Tap “the world’s loudest band”). They also make clear that for the director and the lead, much of this is their reply to their previous hit, That Man from Rio. Hence, we see yet another level peeled back, this one of both de Broca and Belmondo as the stymied Merlin, who himself is a frustrated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up with the way his impossibly great character has taken over his life. His ultimate solution is as funny as it is brazen.
Open minded and adventurous fans of James Bond (or Austin Powers, for that matter) will not want to miss Le Magnifique. Its bold meta nature doesn’t always win out over the ding-dong fatigue it generates at times, but overall, it’s magnificent in its own right.