France , 1993
R (Profanity, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jean Reno, Christian Clavier, Valerie Lemercier, Marie-Anne Chazel, Christian Bujeau
Jean-Marie Poire and Christian Clavier
Jean-Yves Le Mener
In French with English subtitles
Maybe I just don't understand the French sense of humor. After all, they think Jerry Lewis is a comic genius. Whatever the reason, I rarely find "lowbrow" French comedies more than passably watchable (and, in the case of Little Indian, Big City, not watchable at all). The Visitors, which was released three years ago, drew huge crowds across its native land, outgrossing the imported Jurassic Park. The French loved it -- a sentiment that I definitely do not share.
It's curious that, for all the French outcries against American imports, this particular home-grown hit has "Hollywood" written all over it. Strip away the subtitles, and the result is the kind of mediocre comedy that major American production companies turn out with alarming regularity. The Visitors is a "least common denominator" motion picture -- largely mindless, sporadically funny, and creatively handicapped.
When The Visitors scored big in France, Miramax Films immediately snapped up the U.S. rights. That's when the problems started, because Miramax couldn't figure out how best to market it. At one point, they were poised to release a dubbed version, but it was pulled back at the last minute (considering the audience response to the dubbed Little Indian, Big City, it was probably a wise move). Now, finally, Miramax has decided on a simple strategy -- add subtitles, but don't change anything. So, after three years, The Visitors will reach American theaters. It's not worth the wait.
The opening is promising. The Visitors starts with a send-up of grandiose French costume dramas, introducing us to a series of armored knights and damsels in distress. One of the former is Sir Godefroy, the Count of Montmirail (Jean Reno), a renowned warrior. When he saves the king's life, he is given permission to marry the woman of his choice, Lady Frenegonde (Valerie Lemercier). Unfortunately, after drinking wine laced with a witch's hallucinogenic, Godefroy mistakes Frenegonde's father for a bear, and kills him. Frenegonde then enters a convent, unwilling to marry the man who killed her father.
For help, Godefroy goes to the local wizard, who proposes a way of changing history. By drinking a potion, Godefroy can go back in time and alter what happened. Unfortunately, the wizard gets the ingredients wrong, and the knight, along with his faithful retainer, Jacquasse (Christian Clavier), ends up nearly 1000 years in the future, in 1992. There, these two "fish out of water" embark on a series of misadventures that puts Crocodile Dundee to shame.
Some viewers will undoubtedly notice superficial similarities to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits. However, while those films steered a bizarre premise in wonderfully unexpected, comic directions, The Visitors uses comparable ideas in the service of a banal plot with cheap jokes. There were times when I thought I was watching a cross between Erik the Viking and Dumb and Dumber.
There are some hilarious moments, such as when Jacquasse first encounters a car, or when Godefroy and Jacquasse attempt to discern how the various conveniences of a modern bathroom function. And there are a few attempts at the more intellectual approach of lampooning Shakespearean language with lines like "It stinketh", "Let's splitteth", and "Holy scrotums!" (Incidentally, these lines work a little better if you understand the original French.) Unfortunately, the good parts of The Visitors are isolated, and it's debatable whether the rest is worth wading through to get to them.
For those who are convinced that all films emerging from France are snobbish, elitist, and artistically upscale, The Visitors will quickly change that impression. Subtitles excepted, American audiences won't find much here that they couldn't unearth in 50% of the titles currently playing in mainstream multiplexes. Ultimately, it's this conformance to mediocrity that brings down The Visitors.