“The proverbial raised eyebrow remains the most expressive of emotions”--Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Andersen’s anarchic 1973 comedy “O Lucky Man!”.
The Cinémathèque launches a new season of British comedy screenings in May. Delano spoke with the film archive’s director, Claude Bertemes, about the dark side of British comedy film.
Duncan Roberts: The new season of British film at the Cinémathèque is titled “Dark. Delirious. Deadpan.” Why have you chosen the bleaker side of British comedy for this season?
Claude Bertemes: Because the British are world champions at laughing about things that are actually worth crying about. Black comedy is the essence of British film humour, which joyfully ventures into the taboo zones of the morbid, macabre, tasteless and cynical pessimism. One thinks, for example, of the time-honoured tradition of the Ealing comedies. This is in contrast to the cosiness of German humour, which can revel in the strangely sedate that one often finds in the paintings of Carl Spitzberg. The Heinz Rühmann films, for example, provoke only an innocent, arch smile. Even French film comedies have this tendency to the tautological in handling frivolous subject matter in a frivolous manner. It is much more exciting and British to stage the frivolous in a macabre manner, or better still, treat the macabre frivolously.
Basically, and paradoxically, the British black comedy tradition is the perfect embodiment of an Austrian theory--namely Sigmund Freud’s theory of humour. After all, Freud spent his final few years in London. He recognised that laughing at inappropriate situations brought about a temporary relaxation of repressed emotions: fear, taboos, neuroses and sexual impulses.
Highbrow humour would be a contradiction, according to Freud, because the emotional force of the subconscious is unaware of any sort of measure of morality, good taste and political correctness. British humour, then, has an eminently cathartic function in allowing people to let off steam that--and again this is very British--derives from the markedly low-brow and deadpan. The proverbial raised eyebrow remains the most expressive of emotions. Still, the British find joy in deconstructing Cartesian reason and in the emotional liberation of meaningless, delirious, Monty Pythonesque nonsense. Hence our ternary title: “Dark. Delirious. Deadpan.”
DR: Do you think the very particular nature of British humour, which often focuses on class differences that may be difficult to understand outside the UK, translates well to international audiences?
CB: Absolutely. The international success of British social comedy, whether black comedy or not, is striking evidence of this. British comedy is bottom-up humour par excellence. The comic stands below, looks disrespectfully at authority on high and brings it down with plebeian laughter. The British even use a Greek word for this that is absent in other countries: “bathos”. It is precisely this USP, this typical British tendency to anarchic irreverence that fascinates comparatively civilised continental European and worldwide cinema audiences. In general, British comedy is a prime example of the so-called “glocal” effect--the fusion of global and local elements. Films that have an international outlook but are marked by very identifiable local or national colour. In this respect, it remains a mystery to me why a black comedy like “Withnail & I” is a truly cult film in Britain but remains almost unrecognised in France--completely unjustifiably, I might add.
DR: The selection in May covers everything from the post-war austerity of “The Ladykillers” and “A Private Function” to the late 1960s disillusionment of “Withnail & I” and the early 1970s anarchy of “O Lucky Man!”. How important is it for viewers to understand the historical context of these films?
CB: There is a certain two-sided genre tension in all of the films we selected. Primarily they all undoubtedly belong to the black comedy genre. At the same time, they can be interpreted as incidental and discrete forms of period movie--films in which a past era has been preserved as if in amber. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky coined the term “the sealed time” to describe such films. It is a very noble function of cinema to express a specific Zeitgeist, and to retain this over the long term by screenings in Cinémathèques, for example. In this regard, our retrospective is an invitation to travel back in time, starting with the post-war years and going right through the collective mentality, utopias and fashions of Great Britain. A panorama of the British soul with perhaps a touch of vintage nostalgia for audiences to appreciate. But the main thing is the twisted sense of humour: a madcap British rollercoaster ride.
DR: Finally, do you have a personal favourite from the first batch of films being screened in May?
CB: When it comes to film, I am fundamentally polyamorous. But if I have to choose, then “O Lucky Man!” Delirious stuff!
“Dark. Delirious. Deadpan.--the zany touch of British comedies” starts at the Cinémathèque (place du Théâtre) on 2 May. Check out the programme here (pdf in French).
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