The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Very Happy Alexander.
Alexander is a good-natured farmer in Northern France. His unchanging days of constant toil are directed by La Grande, his ambitious and tyrannical wife who exploits his superhuman strength and endurance with a daily list of back-breaking chores. When Alexander suddenly becomes a widower, he decides to devote his existence to laziness, throwing his small community into turmoil and catching the eye of a work-shy shop girl. Yves Robert’s ode to idleness stars Phillipe Noiret as the mountainous Alexander and Kaly as his faithful dog and finest friend.
- New digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Yves Robert: The Right to Laziness, Dominque Maillet’s documentary featuring interviews with Marlene Jobert, Pierre Richard, Andre Legrand, Françoise Brion, Jean-Denis Robert, son of director Yves Robert, and others
- New interview with André Rauch on Very Happy Alexander and the refusal to work
- Theatrical trailer
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: Booklet featuring a new essay by critic David Cairns and Paul Lafargue’s 1883 essay The Right to Laziness
This post contributes to “The Animals in Film Blogathon,” and we’ve got a great one – Yves Robert’s Very Happy Alexander (1968)! This particularly Gallic film, titled en français (that’s French for “French”) as Alexandre le bienheureux, is a tribute to idleness told through the relationship of the titular farmer and his devoted (yet often impertinent) dog. Although the canine character is only ever referred as “dog” throughout the film (“chien” actually; that’s en français for “dog”, which is French for “French”), its four-legged performer is called Kaly, a scrappy little figure that serves as conscience, proxy, and advisor to the movie’s main character.
Phillipe Noiret plays Alexander Gartempe, an affable bear of a man who works his 120 hectare farm under the omnipresent supervision of his wife, known as La Grande (Françoise Brion), who denies with a snap of her fingers Alexander’s desires to enjoy a game of billiards, play football with the village kids, or take a well deserved nap. Alexander finally takes a modest stand against his servitude by bringing into his home a scruffy, black and white dog, something he delayed doing for more than a year by leaving the dog in the care of his neighbour and its breeder, Sanguin (Paul Le Person). The dog is a welcome source of disorder to the Gartempe farm, proving to be a source of distraction for Alexander and a disruption to La Grande’s careful order. His wife says “it’s him or me” but Alexander keeps the dog and chooses to sleep with it in the attic when the animal is too troublesome to La Grande.
Circumstances for Alexander really change when La Grande and her parents die in a sudden car accident and Alexander is left alone with the farm and his canine compatriot. Asked at the funeral what he will do, Alexander smiles and says “nothing,” and that’s precisely what he does, sequestering himself in his bed for 2 months, keeping his material needs in arm’s reach with a Rube Goldberg-esque series of ropes and pulleys, and sending his dog into town to collect groceries (and haggle as required). His refusal to work throws the townsfolk into an uproar and his fellow farmers set out to force Alexander from his bed, trying physical force, rational discussion, and blaring music to rouse the resting giant, all too no avail. There is something very French in these sequences as the obstinacy of Alexander’s principled laziness plays out something like a labour action. It is as if Alexander is striking against the working conditions imposed on all the farmers by tradition and social expectation, and the villagers’ actions are like those of management trying to oust workers from unlawfully occupying their offices.
Alexander is eventually coaxed out his home when his dog doesn’t return, a plot hatched during a meeting by the dog with the town’s mayor and a collection of concerned citizens. This meeting is the hilarious culmination of a series of interactions between the dog and the villagers, where the villagers do not merely discuss the dog as if it were a person attending on behalf of Alexander, but behave as if they were subordinate to the dog and afraid of antagonizing it as an emissary of its master. Alexander’s return to the community does not result in a return to work, but rather to his making a public spectacle of his new freedom – fishing, carousing with the school children, playing billiards and swimming with a few farmers converted to his way of living (including The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, Pierre Richard!). Alexander even wearing shorts! However Alexander’s most scandalous activity is taking up with Agathe (Marlène Jobert), a lazy shop girl who arrived to town during the funeral, who wanders listlessly around the grocery store where she’s employed, and who finds herself fascinated by this leisurely farmer. Their romance is based in play and rest, but Agathe eventually comes to realize that the farm Alexander has let go to seed is worth a fortune. And while she prepares for their wedding, Agathe reveals to some of the local women her plan to not just put Alexander to work and revive the farm, but expand its operation to generate even more revenue.
At the wedding, all of the town turns out happy to see Alexander returning to a conventional lifestyle. Only Alexander’s dog is barred from the church, but the animal’s protesting barks cannot be shut out. Alexander tries to calm the animal, but when Agathe tells him “it’s him or me” and snaps her fingers like La Grande, Alexandre backs away from the altar and happily goes runaway groom with his little dog, escaping Agathe, Sanguin, and the rest of the town who chase after him. Alexander seems to end up as a happy vagabond, liberated by his little dog from the burdens imposed on him by his lovers, his peers, his business, and his community. Thank goodness for a man’s best friend.
Comedies always struggle to garner respect, even in the Criterion Collection, but Very Happy Alexander is a marvel of comedy film construction. Yves Robert, along with cinematographer René Mathelin and editor Andreé Werlin, craft a masterwork of comedic gesture and timing. Werlin’s pacing is cheeky and clever, employing cuts that deliver laughs through modest ellipses, such as when Alexander walks out on his wedding ceremony by slinking out the church’s doors and then cutting to Alexander already across the street and fleeing his bride and guests. It’s the kind of cut that we see regularly in Monty Python, offering an unexpected organization of space relative to the previous scene and using scale and depth of field emphasize Alexander’s expression in the foreground and the chasing mass in the distance. Mathelin’s fondness for zooms or axial dolly moves often work in counterpoint to the movements of his subjects, in compliment to their mental state, or as slow reveals to visual gags. Mathelin slowly pans out from Alexander in bed to reveal the absurd image of sausages, bottles of wine, and musical instruments hung from pulleys above his bed. Perspective is ably exploited in the low angle views from the dog’s position, the long shot of dozens of villagers flattening themselves onto the ground in fear of Alexander’s gunshots, or the close-up views of Alexander and Agathe as they mutually consult photos of one another on their first meeting. Very Happy Alexander deserves attention by the Criterion Collection because it is not merely a funny film, but because it is funny in all of its filmic elements – performance, cinematography, editing, and sound. Over the 5 clips embedded above, Robert’s film is presented in full but without subtitles, yet it remains hilarious at each turn.
Yves Robert’s more recent and acclaimed dramas My Mother’s Castle (1990) and My Father’s Glory (1990) remain out of print on DVD and could also qualify for wacky “Cs”. His other notable comedy The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972) has already been released on North American Blu-ray by Film Movement, while Tall Blond Man, The Return of the Tall Blond Man (1974), and Very Happy Alexander have all been released in France in region-free Blu-ray editions. For MMC!, Very Happy Alexander is too perfect a comedy to be denied the Criterion treatment and seems the ideal introduction to Robert’s deft touch, appealing particularly to francophiles and fans of silent comedy. As if Very Happy Alexander needed another reason to bear a wacky “C,” we offer these poster designs for the film by the great Saul Bass. Is there anyone who would argue against using a Bass design for a cover treatment?
Credits: We must first acknowledge the mock “3 Reasons” video prepared by Film Ape that first introduced MMC! to Very Happy Alexander and that promoted the film as a potential Criterion title. Despite my best efforts, I just can’t find this video but trust me, it was very well done. Thanks should also be given to Howard Thompson’s review of the film for The New York Times and the film’s discussion at the passionate moviegoer.
The cover synopsis is adapted from the recent French Blu-ray and its documentary is ported over as well. David Cairns was selected to provide a booklet essay for his interest in Yves Robert and his past relationship with the Criterion Collection. We imagined the interview with historian André Rauch given his 2013 book Laziness: History of a Capital Sin and his apparent introduction to Very Happy Alexander at a Paris screening a few years ago. Lastly, we’ve included Paul Lafargue’s essay “The Right to Laziness” as the recurring appearance of its title in discussions of the film and in the title of the French Blu-ray’s documentary seems to suggest a more than coincidental connection and something particularly Gallic in the movie’s perspective.
And finally, we must thank Crystal for organizing “The Animals in Film Blogathon” and for allowing MMC! to participate! Today is its last day, so be sure to visit In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and enjoy the other contributors to the blogathon!