Le Magnifique (The Magnificent, 1973)
The instant cult French espionage parody by Philippe de Broca with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset.
Philippe de Broca was one of the most recognizable French filmmakers of the recent years. Even though he started his career through the Nouvelle Vague, being originally an assistant director in films of François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, he quickly left the wave and preferred more commercial films. In his new career he trusted the leading roles to famous screen names and he mainly collaborated with Jean-Paul Belmondo. In 1973 the two of them will work together in an espionage parody Le Magnifique (The Magnificent), which immediately took a very special place among the French comedies.
François Merlin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a humble author of a spy pocket book series. His hero is an undercover agent Bob Saint-Clar whose mission in each book is to save humanity and the Western World from dangerous enemies such as the chief of the Albanian secret services, Karpov (Vittorio Caprioli). In his last mission, Saint-Clar will travel to Mexico, where he will work and also try to seduce the stunning agent Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset). Their goal is overthrow Karpov’s evil plans. Merlin lives and writes the stories inspired by his own everyday routine and he always plays the role of Saint-Clar. The heroine is based on Christine, a beautiful student of sociology who lives in his building and he wants to meet. Finally the role of Karpov is inspired by his publisher, Pierre Charron, who constantly causes many problems to the author.
The film within the film, or rather book within film in this case, technique is not original but of course de Broca handles it pretty smart. All the key players have dual roles and within a few moments they could appear either in the exotic Acapulco or in rainy Paris, always depending on Merlin’s inspiration. The unexpected transitions and situations create the perfect conditions for an absurd comedy where dialogues and scenes have no logical consistency. Belmondo can be simultaneously in his small apartment, but he could also save the free world on a beach. The film is using its naïve lightness and through that manages to aptly satirize the already excessive situations that the “normal” films of the genre, such as those of James Bond and the corresponding pocket books had. Suspense, love, lots of blood and cold-war ideologies are all offered in the exaggerate level that they deserve and without any kind of pretentiousness.
Judging by the title alone Le Magnifique, the viewer is prefigured to a degree on what he should anticipate from a spy movie like this. Spectacular action scenes, fast cars and idyllic landscapes compose the basis of the film. Also, as it is already expected, Bob Saint-Clar always manages to win both using his appearance and his strength, and even with his mind too. This is also the reason why this character remains until today a cult figure in the French pop culture. Also Saint-Clar is one of the distinguishing characteristics samples of anti-Bond heroes. Belmondo looks like he is enjoying both roles and it is not surprising that the film was almost written on him. Bisset plays one of her first French-speaking roles and she manages to be sarcastic and alter her image that had just created after her role in La Nuit Américaine by Truffaut. Finally, Vittorio Caprioli, one of the most famous Italian comedians, offers a pinch of even greater exaggeration to the film.
Without doubt de Broca created a highly entertaining and funny slapstick comedy that was also extremely well received commercially. Despite the years that have passed the films maintains its momentum and in combination with the fast pace, the successive catch phrases and the outrageous plot twists has not lost its freshness. Fortunately Le Magnifique is not a film that is simply viewed with nostalgia; in contrary it is much more intuitive and enjoyable than many of the modern parodies.