[24 June 2011]
Julien Pardot (Michel Serrault), a midlife failure as the family breadwinner, opens an investment firm and nobody beats a path to his door. He notices that other people refer to having to consult their associates, so he invents a mysterious British associate, Mr. Davis, and puts his own advice through his partner’s non-existent mouth.
His business takes off with a vengeance and soon he’s got a big house and, in a touch that wouldn’t be in any American remake, a guilt-free mistress on the side. Before long, the clamoring world gives Mr. Davis credit for everything and Pardot feels Davis taking over unless he can get rid of him. In a logical escalation, anything that happens to Mr. Davis may trigger a financial crisis and economic collapse, not to mention personal calamity for Pardot.
In this era of Millennial Unreality in cinema, every other movie is about people who don’t exist or don’t know who they are or live in their imagination, so older movies that play with the same ideas seem prescient. The script by director Rene Gainville and the estimable Jean-Claude Carrière (colleague of Luis Buñuel), based on Jenaro Prieto’s novel, moves at a clip, touching lightly on its ideas of imaginary men rather than, as it were, fleshing them out. The jaunty music and the moments of cartoony sound-effects and slapstick aren’t as amusing as they want to be and clash with the subtler wit of the general theme.
As a satire from the era of Being There on the consensus delusions that run the stock market and speculative capitalism, the story is solid and intriguing and could easily be remade today—and it was, with Whoopie Goldberg, as IMDB reveals. It has recently been a 2004 Chilean TV version, though perhaps more people are familiar with an actual Hollywood remake back in 1996 as a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, also called The Associate. That’s the one where she spends the last half of the movie masquerading as a fat white guy. No mistress there. Notice the contemporary hook of making race and gender an issue in the motivation.
Obviously such Wall Street satire isn’t new; there’s a funny episode of Car 54, Where Are You about the same kind of panic based on perception, and it’s even in Mary Poppins for goodness sake. But hold onto your chapeaus, because this one is even older than you think.
Prieto’s novel, written in 1928 and considered a classic of Chilean literature, has been filmed many times. It may be hard to believe that a book written before the 1929 crash was a parody of confidence in financial markets, but there had been crashes before. However, that element may have been emphasized by the French, since the point of a good story is that it adapts to many contexts. There doesn’t seem to be an English translation, but apparently the story is a somewhat fantastical essay in the double or doppelganger theme, with the twist that the hero has fabricated his own double.
As for the book’s cinematic doubles, first came the The Mysterious Mr. Davis in 1936. This is a British film, although it was made by two giants of French cinema, producer-director Claude Autant-Lara and writer Jacques Prévert. Apparently this one-hour effort was what they called a “quota quickie”, the equivalent of Hollywood B-films.
More incredibly, the tale was filmed in 1939 Italy, under the reign of Mussolini, as Roberto Roberti’s Il Socio Invisibile. One wonders how much satire that one got away with. It was deemed ripe for Franco’s Spain as well, as witness a 1946 Consultaré a Mister Brown from Pio Ballesteros. The same year produced a Mexican version, Roberto Gavaldon’s Il Socio, with Tito Davison’s screenplay being nominated for Mexico’s Ariel (their Oscar equivalent), and Beatriz Ramos winning Best New Actress. Then came a 1968 telenovela in Chile, so perhaps their 2004 version is a remake of this.
You watch a French throwaway, but instead you find a key to the secret history of the 20th Century. As these cycles carry on, it’s almost distressing how the gentle mockery of 30 years ago, and 50 years ago, and 75 years ago (!) can still seem valid.