Call him a man-child, call him immature for his age, call him not quite together — whichever description you choose, when it comes to Beautiful Loser’s Julien (Sébastien Chassagne), it fits. As the camera roams around his bedroom in the show’s opening moments, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a teenager’s, with cartoon animals on his quilt cover; a football shaped phone on his bedside table; walls filled with tacked-up photos, posters, concert tickets and figurines; and his mother (Nathalie Cerda) soon entering to wake him up.
Julien isn’t a high-schooler. He’s a 31-year-old man, and he’s about to find out that he’s a father of a teenager of his own, Jacques (Theo Fernandez), to the childhood girlfriend, Marie (Marie Kauffman), he hasn’t seen in years. After meeting the son he never knew he had at an interview for a fill-in job at his old school — and asking him to make an introduction to his drug dealer — it’s clear that Julien isn’t a typical dad or even an adult. In French films and TV shows, however, he’s far from alone.
Thanks to the work of Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and more, men who refuse to grow up are a common sight on American screens, but Peter Pan syndrome isn’t just a US-centric affliction. While Julien protests, unconvincingly, that his situation is temporary — that he’s just staying with his mother because his own apartment has asbestos — his amusingly childish existence fits within a long line of similarly hapless French protagonists.
Always the clown
In Beautiful Loser, Julien’s predicament is played for laughs. It’s funny that he’s far from where anyone would reasonably expect him to be at his age, and that he’s now expected to be a parent to a son he has far too much in common with. Accordingly, he’s the show’s clown — sans over-sized shoes and red nose, but sharing the same lack of care, order or responsibility.
From the days of French comedian Max Linder, through to Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and Marcel Marceau’s mime work, clowning around, physical comedy and general tomfoolery have been prevalent in the nation’s comic output. And while the term man-child has only gained particular prominence in recent years, slapstick silliness has never been seen as a sign of maturity.
Growing up is hard to do
Of course, even when you’re a trip to Neverland away from being a lost boy, there’s no better way to grow up fast than parenting a child. At least, that’s what everyone around Julien hopes — that, even though he’s in his thirties, finding out about and getting to know Jacques will be his coming-of-age moment.
Given the frequency with which coming-of-age narratives feature in French cinema, that’s hardly surprising. In fact, one of the country’s most famous film series, as made by one of the pioneers of the French new wave, followed the exploits of a single boy’s life from his pre-teen struggles through to his middle-aged years. In movies made over a 20-year period by director François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel was a cheeky scamp who never quite grew up, even when he had physically grown up, gotten married and grappled with all manner of problems. And, he inspired plenty of others; the loveable losers in French teen movies such as The French Kissers wouldn’t exist without The 400 Blows, for example, and nor would the unnamed hero in TV series Bref.
As well as spending time with his son — even without telling him that he’s his father — Julien clearly hopes something else will come from his new predicament: a rekindled bond with Marie. His feelings are as evident as his lack of forward momentum in life, and while it mightn’t seem likely that romantic success will follow, French films have a way of indicating otherwise.
More than a little fond of the romantic-comedy genre, French cinema is also more than a little fond of mismatched pairs. Inevitably, one character is the blundering mess to the other’s cool, suave and attractive love interest; a fool of a man teamed with a sophisticated woman. Danny Boon’s role opposite Diane Kruger in Fly Me to the Moon typifies the trend, in a story about thwarting a family curse by marrying someone thoroughly unsuitable. Playing the silly comic foil is something Boon has built his career on, not only in features about affairs of the heart, but as a customs officer in Nothing to Declare, and as an obnoxious regional postal worker in Welcome to the Sticks. So too is clumsiness for comedic effect, including as a miming homeless busker in Micmacs.
Bumbling and proud of it
In France, Beautiful Loser goes by the name Irresponsable. It’s an appropriate title for a man with no job, money or home, and while it paints Julien as juvenile and inept, that’s part of his character’s charm. He’s in a perennial shambling state, which gives him room to grow — should he ever want to, which doesn’t appear likely — while also contrasting his behaviour with the rest of the world.
Indeed, he’s falling into a familiar pattern, particularly in a country that made the comedies of Francis Veber box-office hits. The French director is well known for basing his narratives around bumbling figures, whether they’re invited for a meal in The Dinner Game, paired up with Jean Reno’s crime henchman like Gerard Depardieu in Tais-toi !, or pretending to date a model to hide her affair with a married man as seen in The Valet.
Beautiful Loser is streaming now at SBS On Demand.