monsieur batignole (2002)


director: gerard jugnot

gerard jugnot, jules sitruk, jean-paul rouve

Gerard Jugnot’s Monsieur Batignole is described as a comedy. Europeans, it seems, are able to find humour in the wartime world of collaborators and Jewish deportation after the fall of France, but on this side of the Atlantic, the laughs come hard and dry. Still, we probably still have a lot to answer for after "Hogan’s Heroes".

Jugnot stars as the title character, a petit bourgeois Parisian butcher with a socially pretentious wife and a repellent collaborator for a prospective son-in-law, both of them eager to profit from the confiscation of Jewish property and the ravenous needs of the Germans. When their upstairs neighbours, a Jewish family, are arrested thanks to Batignole’s son-in-law, they end up with their apartment. His family seem pleased with the deal, though Batignole is showing pangs of guilt.

When Simon, his former neighbours’ son, turns up after escaping the transport into Germany, Batignole hides him, and puts himself in further danger when he begins scheming to smuggle the boy and his two cousins over the border into Switzerland. In real life, it would have been a dire and dangerous undertaking; in Jugnot’s film, it’s a kind of adventure story, complete with narrow escapes, comic turns, charming children and even a romantic interlude.

Jugnot does one brave, original thing by showing the enthusiastic collaboration of the French and the marginal weakness of the Resistance, once utterly unthinkable in the face of the French post-war Gaullist myth. But the butcher’s discovery of his unimagined courage and moral strength seems as false as the light tone of his escape with the children through occupied France.

Even Batignole’s murder of the awful son-in-law, which should have resonated with both regret and relief, is just played by Jugnot as a coy bit of plot misdirection. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1990 Delicatessen, a bleak fantasy also set in a butcher shop, still remains, even only as an allegory, the best narrative film about Vichy France ever made.