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Drôle de drame

The British and the French have been lobbing comedic spitballs at each other for centuries. In 1937, France scored a palpable hit with Drôle de drame, an acerbic screwball satire aimed ostensibly at the English mania for detective fiction, though other targets too slow to get out of the way are the Anglican Church, Scotland Yard, and English elite society's preoccupation with reputation. It takes place across London circa 1900, from a well-appointed manor home to the Chinatown stews, though it's a London idealized like a music-hall stage farce.

The convoluted story is peopled by a gallery of oddballs through some of French cinema's best actors. An Anglican bishop (Louis Jouvet) calls at the home of his cousin, a botanist (the great Michel Simon) whose respectable financial status secretly comes from his socially unacceptable sideline of penning popular detective novels under a nom de plume. When the botanist's wife (Françoise Rosay) apparently disappears — she's hiding in the kitchen, replacing the cook who has walked out on her — the bishop suspects the botanist of murdering her. Then the botanist disappears, only to emerge in disguise as his crime-solving pen name to investigate the murder. Assorted anarchic snowballs roll down various domestic-comedy hills. The "dead" wife is wooed by a serial killer (a marvelous Jean-Louis Barrault) whose love of animals prompts him to murder only butchers; the botanist's fashionable house is turned into a veritable fraternity party by the Scotland Yard men and journalists on the case; the stuffy bishop, eager to dispose of evidence pointing to an unsavory liaison, dresses up as a Scotsman; identities are hidden, misunderstood, or abolished altogether; and the socially conscious English upper crust is shown to be more than a tad potty.

Drôle de drame bears a passing resemblance to René Clair's light farces of the early 1930s, though its teeth are sharper, its Gallic invocations of amour arrive thick and often, and its dialogue sparkles with deadpan drollery. "Dadaist frivolity," as Pauline Kael dubbed it. A subplot involving a romance between the milkman and the secretary is almost one too many.

Daft and delightful and remarkably modern, Drôle de drame was director Marcel Carné's only venture into comedy, and it is especially noteworthy as his first collaboration with screenwriter Jacques Prévert. In 1945, their work again with actor Barrault and art director Alexandre Trauner gave us a masterpiece, Children of Paradise. (Drôle de drame is also known as L'étrange aventure de Docteur Molyneux and by its American title, Bizarre, Bizarre.)

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This DVD from Home Vision Entertainment delivers a terrific new transfer (1.33:1) from a very good source print that's only a little worn and dusty. The original French audio comes through fine in monaural DD 2.0. The English subtitles aren't presented against their own contrast field, so sometimes they're difficult to read; otherwise, no complaints. The box includes an insert with a brief essay by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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