The backwards humour still present in French cinema

Par Emma Pascal

Last week, I went to see “Mon Chien Stupide” by Yvan Attal. It was a pretty good film, and I would probably recommend it. I related to the poignant emotional journey the characters were on. I liked the curated photography and the earth tone color palette. It was, overall, a well-made movie. However, maybe because it was so surprisingly good on all other fronts, recognizing the same backward jokes used in cheap French comedy movies in use here was shocking.

Seeing this movie made me realize that the humor I had previously assumed to be confined to a specific genre of truly dumb film, was actually very widespread within French cinema. Racism, sexism and homophobia are the groundwork for everything that is supposed to be funny to a French audience, no matter the standard of the film.

For those fortunate enough not to be familiar with the topic, let me give you an example from this movie. 

“Mon Chien Stupide” is an adaptation from John Fante’s book “My Dog Stupid”. It is the story of how a frustrated writer’s family life is disrupted by a huge, ugly grey dog moving in. The writer, Henri, has been yearning for change and blaming his family for his unhappiness. The dog, which goes by the name Stupid, fulfills his wishes by causing all of his four children to move out one after another, and destroying his marriage. In the end, Henri realizes how ungrateful he used to be, and wins back his wife.

A running gag throughout the film is that the dog has a habit of attacking and humping both other dogs and men – especially either rude or effeminate men. The “funny” part of this is the image of a man, who asked for it by annoying Henri, getting punished through sexual assault by a huge dog. This stems from the sad humor around male victims of rape. There is the idea of men losing their pride and masculinity through assault. For more on the topic, “Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs” by Pop Culture Detective on YouTube is very good. It is literally just a compilation showing how common this kind of jokes are.

These scenes are supposed to symbolize that the dog embodies the power the Henri has been wishing for – the courage to get back at rude people. In itself, this idea of the dog being a tool for vengeance is okay – but there were so many other ways to convey the concept that would not have relied on rape jokes and homophobia.

Many on this campus will bring up freedom of expression and complain that I cannot take a joke. I do not call for this film to be removed, that would indeed be against freedom of expression – I simply want to make us all a little more aware of what we laugh at.

When we hear a joke, we laugh. It’s natural. But it is enlightening to take a second to reflect on what makes it funny. What are the implications behind the joke? Who are we laughing at? Oftentimes in French cinema, you’ll find the joke is at the expense of an already marginalized group. I think it is problematic to let French audiences laugh at things repeatedly without understanding the social context they are made in. 

Because I can tell you, some of them really do not. Look back at the amount of debate around gay marriage in France, ask any French student about the conservative part of their family – or live in Menton for a little bit, and you’ll realize not all French people are about freedom, equality and brotherhood.

When one consumes homophobic humor as exemplified above with no awareness of our social context which makes male rape funny and homosexuality disgusting, one only takes away that homophobia is acceptable and funny. In sum, this kind of humor, when received by uneducated audiences, perpetuates destructive societal patterns.

As I would not assume that Yvan Attal and all other French film makers are all unaware of this, I could not help but ask myself why this kind of cheap humor is still so common in French cinema. I suppose it is because it works. It’s easy to understand, people are used to it. They have the racist, sexist, homophobic codes to understand the jokes. It has become the basis for understanding characters and situations, the backbone of French comedy.

I cannot picture this happening in English speaking cinema. If it did even once, there would be outrage against the film. But in France, it is completely normalized. Moving to France has made me realize how much my country still has left to do in terms of understanding systemic oppression. French film is only a very small and maybe seemingly petty aspect of a bigger issue. 

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