Godefroy, Count of Montmirail, and his servant Jacquasse, are mistakenly catapulted by a wizard’s spell from the 12th century into the late 20th, with disastrous results. Godefoy and Jacquasse must try to find their way back to the Middle Ages, which is complicated when Godefoy meets his descendent, the wife of a dentist, and Jacquasse his, a loathsome nouveau-riche hotelier.
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Les Visiteurs, or The Visitors in English, is one of my favorite French comedies. It is the complete opposite, however, in tone from my favorite French dramas. The film is incredibly silly and requires a massive suspension of belief, so much so that its imaginative premise can hardly be called science fiction. The film opens in 1103, when we meet our hero, the French knight Godefoy the Hardy (Jean Reno), the Count of Montmirail and devoted retainer of King Louis the Fat. We also meet Jacquasse, (Christian Clavier) Godefoy’s humble vassal. To reward Godefoy for his loyal service, the King grants him leave to collect his lady love Frenegonde (Valerie Remercier) from her father’s castle and marry her, knowing Godefoy’s supreme desire for descendents. On the way to the castle, Godefoy and his knights capture a witch. Unfortunately, the sorceress bewitches Godefoy into shooting Frenegonde’s father with his crossbow. Desperate to make amends and marry Frenegonde, Godefoy employs the wizard Eusabius to send him back in time to prevent the tragedy.
At the castle, Jacques-Henri Jacquart (Christian Clavier), the owner who has turned it into a hotel, is managing a conference with the bankers Bernay and Bernay. When Bernay suffers a toothache, Jacquart phones for Jean-Pierre’s emergency assistance as Béatrice and her long-suffering husband try to make Godefoy and Jacquasse feel at home. Despite the fact Jacquasse sets Béatrice’s umbrella on fire, causes the toilet to overflow, and pours a 6,000 franc bottle of Chanel in the bath, Béatrice and Jean-Pierre keep the medieval men under control long enough for Jacquart to visit. As Jacquart and Jacquasse are virtually identical, everyone goes on believing they are brothers.
Godefoy’s mission, as he tells Jacquasse, is to get to the castle’s dungeon, concoct Eusabius’ potion and get back to the 12th century. In the meantime they must both pretend that Godefoy is Cousin Hubert. More and more outrageous situations follow, as Jacquasse finds buried treasure and transforms himself and Ginette into tawdry millionaires. Jacquart must manage the Bernay conference which is quickly spiralling out of control as Godefoy has to get to the dungeon despite all obstacles. Any ridiculous situation you could possibly think of when 12th century visitors wreak havoc on the 20th century is explored in this film.
Christian Clavier plays both the stupid and crass but extremely funny and somehow still loveable Jacquasse. He also plays the arrogant, petty Jacquart, distinguishing the two by playing Jacquasse with a stoop and a messy hairdo, trolling in peasants’ duds and covered in the dirt you’d expect of a medieval serf—Jacquart wears blazers of screaming colors and one of the funniest moments of the film is when medieval magic destroys Jacquart’s brand new Range Rover in a blaze of supernatural lightning. However, the viewer should not ignore the fact that Clavier wrote the film along with the director Jean-Marie Poiré. The film certainly plays to his strengths, buffoonery with a touch of class satire. Ginette’s wry commentary on Béatrice as lady of the manor, the fact that the nouveau-riche Jacquart now owns the Montmirail ancestral home (which Godefoy finds detestable), and the contrast between eccentric Béatrice and the long-suffering Jean-Pierre, the “peasant,” bring the hint of subtext to the madcap proceedings.
Clavier does much to bring the film together, especially when playing scenes against himself, but the other leads’ contributions should not be overlooked. Jean Reno is one of France’s most prolific actors and has a string of English-language film credits as well; he usually plays hard-bitten police officers or crooks. To see him in a comic role is a treat for the connoisseur and an amusement for the uninitiated. Valerie Remercier also is very good in her dual roles, as the over-the-top Frenegonde in medieval get-up, and the completely silly Béatrice, who clearly wears the pants in the family. It’s a testament to the actors that scenes between Godefoy and his “youngling” Béatrice contain some amount of tenderness despite the utter lunacy required of them by the plot.
It is impossible to ignore the fact the film is of its time (no pun intended)—its attempts to send up Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are partially successful (the mock-heroic musical theme for Godefoy is contrasted with a rock soundtrack when he finds himself besieged by train, plane, and automobile). Less successful (and a somewhat baffling addition) are the transformative scenes (when the 12th century visitors go to the 20th century and then back again) and the crass and somewhat unnecessary opening. Still, when Godefoy and Jacquasse approach the mailman’s jeep and destroy it with sword and club, I’m reminded of a similar scene with trolls in New York in NBC’s miniseries The 10th Kingdom.
The humor in The Visitors is not sophisticated. It is outrageous and slapstick. The translators have done a fine job of conveying the humor implied when the medieval characters use Old French vocabulary, adding another layer of amusement. I dare you not to laugh.