Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

LES VISITEURS (1993)

Les visiteurs tells the tale of Godefroy de Papincourt (Jean Reno), a heroic count from the year 1123 who, after drinking from a bewitched flask, believes the father of his bride-to-be is a rampaging bear, so he shoots him in the head with a crossbow. Desperate to clear his name, he grabs his manservant Jacquouille la Fripouille (Christian Clavier) and pays a visit to a wizard named Eusebius (Pierre Vial), hoping for a way to undo his hunting mishap. Unfortunately, the time potion the wizard concocts for the duo contained just a little too much 1993. Zut alors!

THE STORY:
Okay, I promised myself I’d make it through this article on a French comedy without mentioning–

GOD DAMN IT, I’M A HACK. I’M A FILTHY, FILTHY HACK AND I’M SORRY.

I know, France’s affinity for Jerry Lewis has been a soul-crushingly lame joke since before I was born, but regardless of its truthfulness, I just could not help thinking of this tired stereotype all throughout Les visiteurs.

A behind-the-scenes snapshot of Reno and Clavier checking the script.

I mean, it’s the kind of premise that you’re already watching in your head as soon as you hear it. Two Frenchmen from the Middle Ages wandering around 1993… hmm, do they think phones are magic?!

Ha.

Fish Out of Water comedy almost wears out its welcome exponentially without a good story attached. Oh, now they’re in a room with an X? I bet they don’t know how an X works! Yeah, it would be pointless to analyze gag after gag. Especially when we’re concerned with the story here, and this movie does, technically, have one.

Kind of.

Besides trying to get back to 1123, Godefroy is constantly concerned with his legacy, so his main objective becomes finding what remains of his castle today. The comedy manages to rise above slapstick when he’s appalled by shifts in the values of his descendants. And his disapproval of a more respectful treatment of the poor is a theme that continues through Jacquouille’s storyline when he befriends a homeless woman named Ginette (Marie-Anne Chazel).

Ah, l’amour.

But, you know, it’s mostly “How Does This Work?!?!”

Ha.

THE ACTING:
Having seen Jean Reno in mostly serious roles, he’s well-cast as a noble character. Think Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! or Police Squad!; the joke works because Reno brings such gravity to whatever ridiculous bullshit he’s doing.

A count holds for no man.

As for Christian Clavier… think Leslie Nielsen in, I don’t know, 2001: A Space Travesty?

Ptui.

Yep, in case subtlety isn’t your thing, the peasant character is there to make big dumb grins and put weird things in his mouth. I’m assuming this is for the kids– oh, wait, this movie is rated R. So it’s for the adults? Do you see why I can’t stop thinking of Jerry Lewis? And if this isn’t already the picture of bad comedy perfection, he plays more than one role!

Sadly, none of them are fat sassy black women.

Just like in Back to the Future Parts II and III, everyone in your family tree looks exactly the same, so Christian Clavier also plays Jacquard, descendant of Jacquouille and the current owner of Godefroy’s castle. The appeal of one actor in multiple roles is his range, right? Because while Jacquard is a bit more stiff and proper than his 1123 counterpart, he sure does an awful lot of running around, shouting, and generally hamming it up. Like a snooty homeless guy, maybe.

Speaking of homeless people, the peasant falls in love with a home-lacking lady named Ginette (Marie-Anne Chazel). She’s a bit of a loopy wreck and I must admit that she’d be a lot of fun if she didn’t sound exactly like a French Eric Cartman.

Respectez mon autorité!

There are also boring normal people in this movie because there always have to be boring normal people in comedies. Christian Bujeau plays a boring dentist husband as husbandly and dentist-like.

Would have skipped him completely if he weren’t important in the sequel.

His wife Béatrice is played by Valérie Lemercier, who does a fine job of being a normal person, minus the fact that she’s sexually attracted to a relative. No, it’s not any McFly-style incest where she’s unaware that the object of her affections shares blood with her. When she first meets Godefroy, her ancestor, she believes him to be a long-lost cousin. So… why the following passionate scene?

Complete with sweeping music.

Either the two actors thought it would add a bit of Freudian depth or the writer is keeping a secret.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
“Time is a mountain, pierced by many hidden tunnels,” declares the wizard in a burst of pure magical poetry. Then Jacquouille drinks the time potion and literally turns into a pile of shit.

No, literally. I cannot stress that enough.

Apparently the director thought that time travel should be personalized, so each character that gulps down some magic juice contorts in a bunch of different goofy ways, including, for reasons that still baffle me, turning into a literal pile of shit. I can’t believe I’m typing that. They use a combination of prosthetics and CGI to achieve this truly shitty effect. Where he turns into shit.

Shit. Shit, you guys. What the hell?

Godefroy turns into some weird glowing ice statue, then explodes. It’s a cool effect in that it is not shit-based.

The director probably wanted him to turn into farts, but the effects team said no.

Wait a minute, one actor playing multiple roles? Roll out the split screen!

“Could we get a SHIT screen?” – The shitty director who wanted shit in his shit effects.

I’m still completely brain-fucked over the time travel effects. And not just the fact that one of them is literally shit. Why do they have to be so goofy and random? I can just hear some European film critic talking about how “perverting the fabric of time is a mockery of the absurd and the grotesque.”

Hence this dumb cartoon shit for babies.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Jacquouille la Fripouille’s name in the English subtitles is Jacquasse la Crasse, probably because some pun was lost in translation and this sounds like “jackass the crass.” This reminds me of a character named Sasseur in Le dîner de cons whose name is changed to “Hissister” for English-speaking audiences because, again, wordplay. I’d prefer the characters keep their original names, so I’ve devised a solution for French filmmakers: stop thinking pun names are funny. You’re welcome!

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
It’s magic, it’s stupid, it’s French. Here’s the closest the subtitles got to being confused about the space-time continuum.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
I can’t pretend I haven’t seen worse comedies or time travel films, but this should have been a lot better. I especially feel betrayed by the opening, which has a couple of very dark comedic gags that seem to be setting the tone of the movie, but alas, it then devolves into boring stretches of weird unfunniness. If you ever happen to be in a room where somebody’s just started Les visiteurs, stick around for a bit. When you see this guy’s face, wait a minute, laugh heartily at what happens next, and then leave.

You betrayed me, Single Hilarious Early Scene.

Yes, this underwhelming excursion spawned a sequel, a remake, and a third installment that’s currently in development. And I have the displeasure of telling you about the sequel and the remake later this week.

Zut.

LATER THIS WEEK:
Les couloirs du temps: Les visiteurs 2 (1998), Just Visiting (2001)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.