Tracy Stephenson, coordinator of film and video at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a rule: “If I haven’t laughed pretty heartily in 20 minutes, I cross it off the list.” So, rest assured that the Five Funny French Films screening at the museum this year — which begins next Friday, March 31 — will be laugh-out-loud, gut-busting funny. It’s no small feat, Stephenson admits.
"We try to find comedies throughout the year, and it’s a difficult process to find appropriate, funny French films,” says Stephenson. “A lot of them are romantic comedies that are sweet and cute, but not really funny.”
And funny is (literally) the name of the game. The goal of the series, the brainchild of film committee co-chair Michael Zilkha, is to bring new and new-ish French cinema to Houston audiences, and specifically French comedy, which Stephenson says will bring a different perspective to local audiences.
"I think the French are more courageous on taking on certain topics,” says Stephenson, pointing to the first of Saturday night’s double feature, The Brand New Testament.
The Brand New Testament (Le tout nouveau testament) starts from a simple premise: God exists and is living in Belgium – in a perpetually bad mood. God in Jaco Van Dormael’s film is a nonstop jackass, toying with the human race like he toys with his wife and children, until his ten-year-old daughter, Ea, decides she’s had enough. Ea runs away, collects a motley group of disciples – including a transgender child, a woman with a prosthetic arm, a serial killer and an unhappy housewife in love with a gorilla (played by the legendary Catherine Deneuve) – and sets out to write a new testament, one that will fix all of her father’s mistakes.
The New York Times calls the film “a zany fairy tale in the Monty Python mode, but not quite as silly, and with a streak of pictorial poetry,” and Stephenson says simply, “It’s very French,” with a laugh.
"I just can’t see an American film taking on that kind of content at this time.”
Though Stephenson calls The Brand New Testament her favorite film in this year’s series, the film that follows it, One Man and His Cow (La vache), is a close second.
One Man and His Cow, directed by Mohamed Hamidi, is about just that – an Algerian farmer, Fatah, who dreams of taking his cow, Jacqueline, to the big agricultural show in Paris. “He tries to enter the show every year, has always been rejected, [and] finally one year they say, ‘Okay, bring Jacqueline, come to the show,’” says Stephenson. “He walks all the way to Paris and has comedic adventures along the way – gets drunk for the first time, makes friends, and loses the cow, and then finds the cow.
"It's really funny and sweet,” adds Stephenson. “It’s all happy.”
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The MFAH will also screen Struggle for Life (La loi de la jungle), a satirical jungle comedy starring Vincent Macaigne as a man tasked by the French government to build a ski resort in very tropical French Guyana, where he inevitably gets captured by natives and bitten by snakes; the semi-autobiographical Uncompleted Song (Comment c’est loin), featuring French rapper Orelsan, challenged to write a song in 24 hours or lose his recording contract; and the closing-night film We Are Family (C’est quoi cette famille?!), in which seven step-siblings decide that instead of being shuttled between homes on weekends and holidays, they (the kids) will live together in one house – and the parents can do the traveling.
How very French, indeed.
The Brand New Testament and One Man and His Cow screen at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., respectively, on Saturday, April 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org/films. $8 to $10.
The Five Funny French Films series continues at the MFAH with Struggle for Life (7 p.m. March 31), Uncompleted Song (9 p.m. March 31) and We Are Family (7 p.m. April 2). The Brand New Testament will screen once more, after the series concludes, at 4 p.m. on April 8.