Le Grand Restaurant (Jacques Besnard, 1966)

Sechs Eier, Salz, Butter, und…? Muskatnuss!

He is perhaps the quintessential French comedian: Louis de Funès. He starred in countless humorous classics, the most well-known of which his legendary ‘Gendarmes’ series. Le Grand Restaurant is of a later date than this, and stars Funès at his absolute best. It is also a much funnier film and deserves recognition.

Funès plays irate bullies. His characters are authoritarian and mean-spirited, underpinned by a great sense of inferiority. Along with his small stature, this causes him to be an eternal pain to his environment. In this film, he plays Monsieur Septime, owner of a luxurious restaurant that serves the rich and famous of political Europe. The opening act – the best part of the film, as it is not yet involved with any notions of plot, but serves a terrific dish of situational comedy without garnish – is concerned only with how Septime terrorizes his staff in a quest for gastronomical perfection. He orders them around with an annoying sucking sound, grovels pathetically in front of the patrons and tortures the butlers with inane workshops.

This is a playground for Funès, who revels in his persona and engages in whimsical comedy that won’t be bound to any standard. One moment, the world takes itself entirely seriously, the next it explodes in a one-off dance routine that begs to be seen. A particularly inspired use of shadows as Septime explains a recipe to a German guest reduced me to tears of laughter.

Once the plot kicks in (a serviceable spy story about a terrorist group kidnapping the head of state at the eatery), the film dulls a little, though the comedy moments still thump their chest occasionally. The thing is, this development is necessary. Had it only consisted of an hour and a half of Septime running his establishment, Le Grand Restaurant would’ve turned sour. Any plot was necessary, and this one fulfills its purely functional role. Weirdly enough, the surprisingly James Bond-like climax takes place far, far away from the titular restaurant. Not much more emphasis is needed to the point that the first half hour is the real movie, and all the rest is gravy.

There aren’t many films that would dare put up a character so instantly loathsome as Septime. It is a testament to Funès’ genius that he pulled it off time and again. Plotwise, his films don’t make a lasting impression. They’re purely window dressing, a display for the actor to traipse around in and demonstrate his remarkable, unique talent. The overall movie experience might prove lacking, but some of the moment-to-moment moments are peerless.

Roderick Leeuwenhart