Period Comedy, An Exploration

InconscientesI first heard of the term Period Comedy, in relation to a Spanish film called ‘Inconscientes’(The Unconscious/Subconscious). The term made me curious and I immediately got hold of this film. The result was immensely rewarding.

Made in 2004 by director Joaquin Oristrell, ‘Inconscientes’ is set in 1913 Barcelona. It corresponds to a time when Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories started to gain popularity in Spain.

The plot follows Alma(Leonor Watling), who is nine-months pregnant. She returns home one day to find her husband, Leon(Alex Brendemühl), an eminent psychiatrist, about to flee their home and his practice. He has come back from a session with Dr. Freud in Vienna that has left him distraught. Left to have her baby alone, the witty and beautiful Alma enlists the help of her sister’s(Olivia) husband – also a psychiatrist – the dispassionate, repressed Salvador(Luis Tosar), to help her solve the mystery of Leon’s sudden departure. Ignoring his better judgment, Salvador agrees to help her.

There is a sibling rivalry between Alma and Olivia(Núria Prims) that is shared by their husbands. Olivia is jealous of her feminist sister as the favourite of their father, Dr. Mira(Juanjo Puigcorbé), the pompous chief of staff in the hospital where both Leon and Salvador have their practice

Alma and Salvador come across Leon’s thesis, ‘Cases of 4 Hysterical Women’, which describes the case study of 4 psychiatric patients of Leon.

Period DramaThey try to use this thesis as a means to track down the four women and eventually Leon. In the process, they discover a lot about the shocking truths of underground Spain, as well as themselves. The climax of the film comes when Leon plans to murder Dr Freud, who is visiting Barcelona for the release of his new book, ‘Totem and Taboo’, since he attributes all his problems to the psycho-sexual theories of Freud.

Period ComedyThe movie is a fast paced thriller as well an intelligent comedy. The principal humour is contained in the satire on Freud’s tendency of oversimplifying every aspect of human behaviour and trying to fit all of it into his psycho-sexual theories. Hilarious situations also result from the dialogs, especially the quoting of Freud’s theories in meticulously conceived inappropriate contexts. The script and direction by Joaquin Oristrell is commendable. Equally commendable is Luis Tosar’s performance as Salvador.

The first foray into this genre was so rewarding that I decided to explore further. In this quest, I came across movies like ‘Matinee’ and ‘Molière’.

John Goodman's The MATINEE‘Matinee’ is a 1993 American film directed by Joe Dante Jr. It is set against 60’s U.S.A, specifically a time corresponding to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a significant event in the cold war between U.S.A and U.S.S.R.

The film starts with teenager Gene(Simon Fenton) and his brother Dennis(Jesse Soffer), new to Key West Florida military base, who have just returned home after witnessing an announcement for opening of a new film ‘Mant’ by filmmaker Lawrence Woosley(John Goodman). Their father is in the navy and is onboard a submarine nearby. Their TV telecast is interrupted by John F. Kennedy’s urgent announcement, stating the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

This piece of news breeds terror among the people of Key West, who are in perpetual fear of a possible nuclear war. Woosley attempts to bank upon this environment of terror to make his horror movie a success. Accordingly he plans some surprises for the audience in the theatre that would accentuate the effect.

Meanwhile Gene develops a friendship with same aged Stan(Omri Katz) in college. Gene and Andy fall for Sandra(Lisa Jakub) and Sherry(Kellie Martin) respectively. Through a series of dramatic events they turn up in the first premiere of ‘Mant’. What follows is a thrilling as well as funny sequence of events. At the end, the missiles are withdrawn from Cuba and peace is restored.

This film is a portrayal of the mindset of people coping with the fear during the cold war period, as well as a satirical homage to Hollywood B-Movies of the 60s.

Woosley’s film ‘Mant’(Man + Ant) is a typical B-monster movie based on the pseudo-scientific concept of genetic mutation as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation followed by an ant bite. The illogical plot, weird climaxes, expressionless acting and drab dialogs in this ‘film within film’ effectively parody the cheap sci-fi thrillers of the time and also form a major comic element in the film. Woosley’s marketing techniques of artificially creating controversy regarding the film also add to the fun.

Another major comedy element in the film is the paranoia of nuclear war. Although a very serious subject, it is treated humorously. For e.g, we find the manager of the theatre always carrying a radio with him so that he does not miss any update regarding the outbreak of war etc. Many such scenarios are strewn within the film. The smart script and execution as well as good acting make this film an enjoyable watch.

Moliere‘Molière’, made in 2007 by French director Laurent Tirard is a film based on the life of famous playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière. This French language film is based upon a certain stage in the life of Molière, of which very less is known. Hence, the movie cannot be called a biopic in the strictest sense, but is more of a fabrication. This story is constructed in a very artful manner by using characters and situations from Molière’s later plays. The film looks at a possible inspiration behind his decision to travel and play his farces in villages and hamlets for 12 years and the reason for a satirical edge that came into his plays after his return to Paris.

The film begins in 1658, when the French actor and playwright returns to Paris with his theatrical troupe to perform in the theater the king has given him. Most of the film is in the form of a flashback to 1645. Following an unsuccessful run as a tragic actor, Molière(Romain Duris) is released from debtor’s prison by Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy commoner with social pretensions, who agrees to pay the young actor’s debts if Molière teaches him to act.

Jourdain, a married man with two daughters, hopes to use this talent to ingratiate himself with Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier), a recently widowed beauty with whom he has become obsessed. He hopes to perform a short play he has written for the occasion.

Molière has been presented to the family and staff of Monsieur Jourdain as Tartuffe, a priest who is to serve as a tutor for the Jourdains’ younger daughter. As the story progresses Molière proceeds to fall in love with Jourdain’s neglected wife, Elmire (Laura Morante). It is Elmire who appreciates Molière’s talent as a comic actor and encourages him to concentrate on farces rather than tragedy and travel the countryside of France with his troupe. When Molière resents saying that there can be no quality work in the line of farces, she inspires him to invent the same. Elmire agrees to Elope with Molière and join his theatre troupe.

Sub-plots involve the love life of the Jourdains’ older daughter, and the intrigues of the penniless and cynical aristocrat Dorante (Édouard Baer) at the expense of the gullible Jourdain.

Towards the end, Jourdain sees reason with the help of Molière, which finally compels Elmire to give up her notion to elope with Molière. In the present(1658) Molière finally meets Elmire when she is about to die, in one of the most poignant sequences in the movie.

French ComedyThis film cannot be called an out and out comedy as such. This is a tragicomic, the sort of a film that makes one laugh with tears trickling down the eye (This complement has been often used for Chaplin films). The principal comic element in this film is contained in the satire of French bourgeoisie society as well as in Molière’s frantics. We find Jourdain, a rich and idle commoner who tries to impress Célimène and makes a fool of himself in the process. Célimène on the other hand is a proud and sly young woman whose pastime is exploiting rich men and mocking them behind their backs. Molière being an outsider to this culture is able to perceive the imbecility and the hypocrisy of this society, something that would form a major element of his later satires. Molière’s actions in response to this scenario contribute a frolic element to the film.

Romain Duris stands out as Molière, with his expressive acting in the comic as well as the emotional sequences. Equally commendable is Fabrice Luchini as Jourdain and Laura Morante as Elmire. The script is a bit slow paced in accordance to the period it portrays, yet captivating. The direction by Tirard also deserves accolades.

Based on these 3 viewings, I have tried to list down the common aspects of period comedy films.

They are:

1)   Period specific humor: The humor elements in Period Comedy films are very specific to the period they portray. ‘Inconscientes’ deals with the impact of introduction of Freud’s theories in Spain, ‘Matinee’ portrays the terror stricken environment during the cold war and ‘Moliere’ represents the futility of Bourgeoisie culture in 17th century France. All these aspects make sense only in the context of the period that is portrayed in each of these films. They would not necessarily be relevant in a modern context. This, in my opinion is a major factor that differentiates period comedy from normal comedy films. This element adds a separate charm to these films and to me constitutes their USP.

2)   Intelligent Comedy: Period comedy comprises of mostly intelligent comedy and generally avoids slapstick elements or at the most keeps them to a minimum. This is perhaps done in accordance with the first characteristic listed above, since slapstick comedy is very physical in nature and is timeless. It is impossible to conceptualize different varieties of slapstick comedies that would correspond to different periods. Having too much of slapstick comedy would strip a film of its period specific humor content.

3)   Satire: All these films make satirical observations on certain aspects(again specific to the period). ‘Inconscientes’ satirizes Freud’s oversimplication of human behavior, ‘Matinee’ does the same for B-Movies of 50-60’s and ‘Moliere’ mocks the lifestyle of 17th century French bourgeoisie. This is a common element and another USP of such films.

Any film that meets these characteristics would be a period comedy film to me.

A scene rom Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a summer's nightJust as I was about to pin down period comedy as a new and brilliant innovation in the film genre, with no precedence, I came across another much older film that satisfies all the conditions listed above apart from being a world classic. This is a Swedish film called ‘Sommarnattens leende’(Smiles of a Summer Night), made by none other than the legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Let us take a closer look at this 1955 film.

The film takes place in Sweden around the turn of the twentieth century. Fredrik Egerman is a middle-aged lawyer married to a 19-year-old beauty, Anne. Their two-year marriage is still unconsummated, due to Anne’s reluctance. Fredrik has a son, Henrik, from his marriage to his late first wife. Henrik is in his early twenties and is studying to be a minister but is currently tormented by his love for his step-mother, who secretly loves him in return. Henrik is distracting himself from his urges by attempting an inconclusive affair with Fredrik’s lusty young servant, Petra.

Between his two marriages, Fredrik had an affair with a notable stage actress, the beautiful Desiree Armfeldt, but she broke off the relationship. Desiree now has a young son named Fredrik, born shortly after her affair with Fredrik Egerman. (It is implied, but never directly stated, that little Fredrik Armfeldt is the son of Fredrik Egerman.) She is now having an affair with an army officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The Count’s wife, Charlotte, is an old friend of Anne Egerman. Fredrik goes to Desiree to seek counsel on his marital problems. Seizing this chance, Desiree forms a master plan.

She has her mother invite all the characters to her country house for Midsummer Night.

Through a series of dramatic events, the much needed rearrangement takes place. Henrick Elopes with Anne, a heartbroken Fredrick seeks solace in the arms of Desiree and Count Carl-Magnus swears to be loyal to his wife.

The aspects in this film which would align it with a period comedy are:

1)   The story takes place in late nineteenth century in Sweden, a time when such incongruous marriages as Fredrick and Anne’s were a normal occurrence. The whole concept behind such uneven pairings that forms the backbone of the story as well as the comic element, is therefore very period specific. Thus it satisfies the first characteristic.

2)   The film is entirely devoid of slapstick comedy. The humor is based on the dialogs portraying the mindset of the characters as well as the funny situations they fall into. Thus, the criteria for intelligent comedy is satisfied

3)   The film makes a comment on the social structure. It presents the sexual repression of the upper classes versus the openness of the working class whereby, the upper class is satirized. Thus the third criterion is also satisfied.

This film can therefore be thought of as a precursor to the period comedy as we know it today. It is indeed fitting for a genius like Bergman to think on these lines ages back, when this genre had not even been conceptualized. There may be other examples in classics which cater to this genre, but have not been explicitly tagged as period comedy; simply because no such genre existed at that time. Attempting to tag such films in this genre based on the characteristics listed above, can be an interesting quest for film enthusiasts.

My personal exploration of this genre has been extremely rewarding. However, Period Comedy is still an unheard term in the context of Indian cinema. The richness of historical anecdotes in India should provide a lot of material for Indian films pertaining to this genre. I sincerely hope some Indian filmmaker takes up such a subject in the coming times and we get an Indian Period Comedy film.

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inconscientes
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matinee_%281993_film%29
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moli%C3%A8re_%282007_film%29
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiles_of_a_Summer_Night

The post was written by  Riddhiman Basu. You can contact him at riddhimanbasu@gmail.com. You can read his previous post here.

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6 thoughts on “Period Comedy, An Exploration

  1. Great post! Have you seen the marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory? Though it is more of a biopic than a comedy, i think it satisifes the first characteristic but not the other two.

    • Thanks a lot Sethu 🙂 Yes, from the description given in wikipedia, thhis film seems to be a perfect candidate for Period Comedy. It has all the 3 characteristics. Good to know that there is already an Indian film in this genre. Hope we have more

  2. Riddhiman, Smiles of a Summer Night is a wonderful (proto-) Period Comedy, but there are other predecessors, too, exploiting different types of comedy & hybrids of comedy & drama:

    Renoir’s ‘The Golden Coach’ (1952) has Anna Magnani as actress with an itinerant Commedia Dell’Árte troupe that arrives in Lima, Peru, during the 18th century–& she sets the colonial capital on its ear. Marvelous! With all Renoir’s wisdom, summed up in his motto: “Every man has his reasons–alas.”

    Dreyer’s final film, ‘Gertrud’ (1964), taken from a stage play about a former opera singer, wife of a politician, & her loves in the late 19th century, has very subtle humor in its stylization & use of dialogue as counterpoint to a serious exploration of the individual in society. Dreyer felt it touched on tragedy at times without being tragic–or melodramatic. A unique movie, often misunderstood. It could be seen as a critique of the Comedy of Manners …

    Completely different, a film wild at heart, subversive in every way, is Wojciech Has’ ‘Saragossa Manuscript’ (1965), from the 1815 novel in French by Polish nobleman Jan Potocsi … A manuscript is found during the Battle of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, an account by one of the Spanish court’s Polish Guards, who loses his way trying to find a faster route between Saragossa & Madrid, caught up by a seemingly supernatural encounter with two alluring muslim women who claim to be his cousins–& the stories-within-stories of other travelers, brigands, philosophers & magicians he falls in with, telling him of similar misadventures. Raconteurish, the stories told in flashback, brilliant comic acting by a big cast, locations, sets, costuming, & a great score of diverse musical styles–if ‘Gertrud’ is at times a kind of satire on Comedy of Manners, ‘Saragossa Manuscript’ is a burlesque of costume dramas that is, nonetheless, as great a one as any in the genre.

    But maybe no-one has done more innovation in & around the edges of the genre over the past 35 years as Raul Ruiz, who died only a couple years back–his ‘Time Regained’ (1999), from Proust’s last novel, is a kind of epic of subjectivity, with extraordinary cinematography, much of which is humorous or comic, with a wonderful cast of French stars–Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Perez, the great Edith Scob & others (including John Malkovich); ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (2010), from a 19th century novel by Camillo Castelo-Branco, “the Dickens [or Gogol!] of Portugal,” it’s a long film–from a TV miniseries–with incredible period values (as in ‘Time Regained’), meandering like a picaresque tale at times from lyric to tragic to comic to bawdy, also employing, though not as relentlessly as ‘Saragossa Manuscript,’ stories-within-stories that reflect on the ambiguous identity of the protagonist. Extraordinary acting by a mostly Portuguese cast.

    (Ruiz, a Chilean who was Allende’s film advisor at the time of the Coup, was a constant experimenter–he made about 120 films & wrote many books–made more radical low-budget films, some of which fall in or near your category, though often in unexpected ways. One, his ‘The Suspended Vocation’ [1978), shot by the great Sacha Vierney, from a novel by Pierre Klossowski, is a strange, hilarious shaggy dog story of a novice priest sent to spy on other priests who may have started a heretical conspiracy during the German Occupation of France–supposedly a film made during the Occupation, never completed, in black & white, intercut with a color cinema verite version of the same story that fleshes out supposedly missing parts from the “earlier” black-&-white version (& doubles, with very different actors, certain “earlier” versions of the same scenes), shot a decade later by a young radical group of priests, put together by a third party to show (hopefully) the unity of the Church! As Ruiz said, himself, a comedy of institutions, of mega-institutions like the Church–& just maybe the Party, showing the ambiguities & incestuousness in the compulsory participation.)

    All the best, Ken

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