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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2003

Let us laugh before we cry

Monsieur Batignole

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Gerard Jugnot
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: French
Now showing

There's no denying the wonderful intentions behind "Monsieur Batignole," but the tale is also a little manipulative. A light-hearted story of a Parisian butcher who helps three Jewish children to escape to Switzerland during the Nazi occupation of France, "Monsieur Batignole" would have been an eye-opener among all the heavy, dark tales that dealt with this subject 20 years ago. Understandably, it was rare to see anything with even a semicomical take on the Holocaust.

News photo
Jules Sitruk and Gerard Jugnot in "Monsieur Batignole"

By now, however, largely thanks to the success of "Life Is Beautiful," we're more comfortable with laughing before we cry. Yes, "Monsieur Batignole" definitely achieves both. Ultimately it is a textbook tear-jerker with a cuteness issue, thanks mainly to the performance of dewy-eyed 9-year-old Jules Sitruk in a central role. Just looking at him trying his best to be brave or optimistic gets you all choked up. To hear him whisper "I'm hungry . . . I haven't had anything to eat in three days" will open the floodgates.

Following in the footsteps of Roberto Benigni, creator of "Life Is Beautiful," Gerard Jugnot directs, cowrote the script and takes the title role. "Monsieur Batignole" was created to answer a question Jugnot had asked himself: How would he have behaved under Nazi occupation? Well, as Monsieur Batignole, the initial answer is "badly."

A typical Parisian shopkeeper, Batignole is blissfully ignorant of what goes on beyond the confines of his neighborhood. He only wants to get by and avoid trouble, particularly that which involves politics and the police. But one day he unwittingly aids the Nazis in arresting a Jewish doctor and his family living in the same apartment and something inside Batignole begins to change. Resentment of the Germans, whom he had fought against in the last war, begins to fester. He begins to loathe his daughter's boyfriend Pierre-Jean (Jean-Paul Rouve), who blew the whistle on the family and watched them taken away with a nasty smirk.

For the first time in his life, Batignole begins to think beyond hams and joints, though he's not yet sure where this thinking will lead. In the meantime, Pierre-Jean has networked among the Nazis and arranged to have the Batignoles move into the luxurious apartment vacated by the doctor. He then announces his imminent marriage to the daughter, Micheline (Alexia Portal), and installs himself in one of the rooms. Batignole's ambitious wife (Michele Garcia) is ecstatic. She urges her reluctant husband to seize the opportunity and expand the business.

The sketches showing life in the days of the Batignole family are funny and breezy, but the story changes its tone with the entry of Simon (Sitruk), the youngest son of the doctor's family. He has miraculously escaped from a concentration camp and returned home, only to find it occupied by the Batignoles. Up to this point, "Monsieur Batignole" is simply a series of clever, biting vignettes of pre-war petit bourgeois lifestyles, but Simon's appeal for help and his recurring question -- "Will I ever see my Papa and Maman again?" -- shifts the film into the handkerchief zone.

Batignole secretly hides him in the attic, locates Simon's cousins hiding in Montmartre and makes himself responsible for the fates of the three Jewish children. To his surprise, Batignole discovers that he can actually be brave, good or even . . . violent. When Pierre-Jean finds the children and threatens to tell the police, Batignole answers with his meat cleaver. He then sells the shop, abandons his wife and takes off with the three kids for the Swiss border, passing through some incredibly beautiful French countryside en route.

The conceit behind "Monsieur Batignole" is the monsieur himself: the sudden morphing of a narrow-minded, overweight bloke into a superhero who outsmarts the Gestapo at every turn. For the first time in his life, Batignole asserted himself and gained some respect. That it took the German invasion for him to do so says something about the Parisian temperament (or is it simply the urban shopkeeper temperament?)

In Batignole we see a Parisian whose kitchen was his castle, a man who had no idea what went on in concentration camps and refused to find out. Indeed, Batignole never faced the reality of the war until it actually moved right under his roof and demanded to be fed.

The biggest complaint to be leveled against this film is that we're never really sure what moved Batignole to help three small strangers, at the cost of giving up everything he had worked for. Neither is there any indication of anything in his past that paved the way to altruism. But maybe inexplicable, spontaneous gestures like his arewhat ultimately freed Europe from Hitler's grip. Surely that's what Jugnot thinks.

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