Helmer Etienne Chatiliez’s third comedy feature reinforces a reputation built on the fearless lampooning of French vanity. Like a fussy French meal that takes too long to conclude, “Happiness Is in the Field” will be far more appreciated at home than abroad. Sure-fire domestic B.O., helped by a script tailored to Gallic self-love and self-loathing, should offset spottier receipts elsewhere. Eurotube and arthouse play, however, will bring Chatiliez’s merciless sense of humor to a wider audience.
As in his previous pics, “Life Is a Long Quiet River” and “Tatie Danielle,” former admaker Chatiliez has tapped screenwriter Florence Quentin to concoct a misanthropic tale filled with repeated humiliations and dead-on dialogue. Unequaled in his ruthlessness when setting up a gag, even at the expense of stylistic consistency, helmer manages to keep the comic bulldozer rolling until just past the midway point, when the story begins its slow, inconclusive fizzle.
Fortunately, Chatiliez puts more in half a film than most of his rivals put in two. Pic begins with the collected woes of Francis (Michel Serrault), a manufacturer of toilet seats in a rainy provincial town. His employees are on strike, his shrewish wife (brilliantly played by Sabine Azema) is planning a ruinously expensive wedding for their daughter, his health is faltering, and the tax man cometh. Even Gerard (Eddy Mitchell), the boorish bon vivant who is Francis’ best friend and partner in gluttony, fails to raise his spirits.
Salvation comes from a TV show. Dolores (Carmen Maura), a fetching farm wife in southwestern France, appears on the tube with her two attractive adult daughters in a nationally broadcast appeal for her long-vanished husband, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Francis. Although he is not the man sought, Francis lets himself be persuaded by TV smoothies to pretend otherwise. This impersonation only redoubles his domestic hell.
Francis eventually heads south, where a paradisiacal existence awaits him on Dolores’ farm. In his absence, Gerard takes up with Francis’ wife and puts a smile on her face by initiating her to the joys of copious food and frequent sex.
Pic belongs to Azema and Mitchell. As a smug small-town Rabelais, French crooner Mitchell delivers a faultless perf opposite the high-strung knot of pretension played with comic brio by Azema. In comparison, Serrault’s querulous, whining Francis seems lifeless and annoying. As usual in Chatiliez’s pics, secondary roles are nicely drawn caricatures: Soccer star Eric Cantona’s perf as Dolores’ athletic son-in-law should please his many fans.
For contrarians, this over-the-top hymn to old-fashioned misogyny could prove irresistible. Chatiliez’s women either need a roll in the hay or are content to cook, sew, smile and take a husbandly wallop in the service of their man. To top off the political incorrectness meter, Dolores’ farm work consists of force-feeding fowl to produce foie gras, Francis drinks to excess and does nothing, and his toilet-seat workers are all women who refuse to listen to any boss who does not wear pants. In short, “Happiness” is a French man’s dream world.
Tech credits are excellent, as is the bucolic production design for Dolores’ country home. Title is derived from a French nursery rhyme written by Paul Fort, and the literal translation supplied above may change by the time of international release. “Back to the Earth” or even “Green Acres” would be more appropriate.