3 May 2021

Gilles Grangier's Le Voyage à Biarritz | The Trip to Biarritz (1963)

In a few seconds, Fernandel can turn joy into sadness, hope into despair, farce into pathos. Le Voyage à Biarritz manages to include comments on the cruel facelessness of economic reality, the class system, the brutal nature of the commercial world, the mindlessness of the paparazzi, the changing nature of society in general and – for good measure – the perceived artificial, mechanical nature of the English; and yet at the same time the film very much remains a traditional comedy. It's based on Jean Sarment's play of the same name, first staged at the Comédie-Française in 1936.

Guillaume Dodut (Fernandel) is the slightly clownish, hot-tempered but loveable stationmaster at Puget-sur-Var (today known as Puget-sur-Argens) who is furious that the last train to stop at the station is to be withdrawn and he has a furious slanging match with coach driver Louis (Rellys) in Le Café de la Gare, which is run by Fernande (Arletty in her last film role). He grabs Louis by the lapel, calling him a fossoyeur (gravedigger), meaning he's in part responsible for the death of rural train stations.

But he's prevented from going further in his anger with Louis when the postman delivers a letter from London, from his twenty-five year old son Charles (Jacques Chabassol). Since Charles was five and expressed a wish to visit Biarritz, the family have learned by heart the blurb about the town and for twenty years Gauillaume has nurtured a burning wish to visit Biarritz with his wife Madeleine (Hélène Tossy) and Charles: he knows all about the delights of the hotels and the scenery. Unfortunately, Charles has other ideas: the letter reveals that he has passed his exams in London as an engineer, although not that he is friendly with the boss of the engineering company, or that he intends to marry Marjorie (Anna Massey): that would be a huge blow to his father, who wants his son to marry Thérèse (Catherine Sola), the station ticket girl.

There are two wonderful scenes in which the English are satirised, the first being when Charles visits Marjorie's family for tea. Her parents simultaneously take the teacups to their mouths, simultaneously put the cups down, simultaneously put a marmelade sandwich to their mouths, simultaneously put them down: all to an infuriatingly repetitive, toy-like musical score: this is a foretaste of Guillaume's later visit to London, where he sees the Changing of the Guard, and says 'On dirait des automates..les soldats de bois' ('They look like robots...wooden soldiers').

Guillaume in London sounds an odd thing, but he's won fourth prize in a Café Bolivar competition: a day in the capital. The coffee company has drawn up a full day for him, including many photo opportunities, many occasions for advertising the coffee, as newspaper vans follow them around and Guillaume has no chance of seeing his son. In fact the last thing his son wants is to be seen with his father in his stationmaster unifrom as it would no doubt put his future in-laws off if they realised anything about Charles's humble beginnings.

But Charles does return to visit his parents, although while they're about to eat the phone goes and it's his London girlfriend Marjorie telling him that her parents were so enchanted by what he's told them about Biarritz that they've decided to spend there holidays there, and it goes without saying the they want him there too. So Charles invents a story to the effect that he's being called away to Biarritz to work as an engineer and he wouldn't have any time for his parents even if they went to Biarritz too: a lie, but a half-lie. Guillaume's wife has already understood the truth: the upwardly mobile Charles has moved on to fresh pastures, or as Fernande puts it, the heartbroken Guillaume is on a different track to his son.

Or maybe not. Charles will be losing his roots, trading his natural, fun- and sun-filled Provence for boring, fog-filled clockwork England. So he fixes Louis's engine, brings more passengers to Thérèse's ticket office than ever before, and she's so sexy and fits so snugly into his arms. Guillaume, of course, provides the final image of the film as he walks the platform with the inevitable toothy, horse-like smile. Precious.

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