Imagine Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfus, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Neal, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Margot Kidder and Sally Kellerman all playing themselves in the same movie — except for Bette Midler, who plays Dustin Hoffman — and you’ll have a rough idea of what Bertrand Blier is up to in “Actors.” A savvy mix of formal declarations and heartfelt set pieces, some of which soar while others tread water, pic is audacious and uneven but mostly enjoyable. Given the names involved, it looks packed to travel internationally, albeit with possible spotty results.
In his first pic since 1995’s “Mon homme,” Blier plugs a dream cast into a melancholy, freeform romp predicated on the idea that “an actor nobody listens to is a lost soul.” Pic is dedicated to the jaunty twin conceits that actors don’t necessarily come equipped with an “off” switch and that anything is possible in the movies. Also on the agenda: the admission that even though the French film industry’s glory days are firmly anchored in the past, a surfeit of talent is still alive and kicking surprisingly high.
It’s a shame in a way that this pic doesn’t have a berth at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, because it’s hard to imagine a greater concentration of non-Gallic viewers likely to recognize the bulk of the cast without a glow-in-the-dark scorecard. Folks who don’t know a Brasseur fils from a Brialy or a Marielle from a Dussollier risk protracted frustration as a fab cross-section of fortysomething to seventysomething Gallic thesps display their acting chops on a broad, fanciful cutting board.
More specifically French than a guy in a beret with a baguette and a camembert playing an accordion on Bastille Day, pic also provides a template that could be copied tomorrow in Hollywood — although probably not for the same budget: Pic cost 55 million francs ($ 8.4 million).
Blier’s insolent brand of proud artificiality may be an acquired taste for auds, but it’s obvious his cast is having a blast. Having given Michel Blanc the idea that became “Grosse fatigue” (“Dead Tired” — in which a few established thesps played themselves), Blier here essays his own grandiose variation by having all the major names except Francois Berleand (the nice S&M practitioner in “Romance”), Dominique Blanc (the maid in “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries”) and Jean Yanne play themselves. What’s more, when Andre Dussollier’s immediate crowd decides he’s getting on their nerves, Blier has Josiane Balasko take over for Dussollier as Dussollier. (A doctor played by Yanne greets the obviously female Balasko with “Hi, Dussollier — how’s the prostate?”) The message: Thesps can always be replaced; audiences will accept anything if it’s cogently presented.
Delightful establishing sequences find seasoned character actors Dussollier, Jacques Villeret (the well-meaning doofus in “The Dinner Game”) and Jean-Pierre Marielle (in his fourth Blier pic) sharing a table in a crowded upscale eatery near the Champs-Elysees. The three men address one another by their real names. Marielle is distraught because it’s been awhile since he asked a waiter for a pot of hot water without results. Via merciless evaluations from his fellow thesps, Marielle concludes that the waiter ignored his order because his delivery was insufficiently convincing.
Additional famous actors make their flamboyant yet matter-of-fact entrances, play musical chairs, call attention to the theatricality of movies in general and this one in particular, and throw stage punches before a portion of the cast takes to the Champs-Elysees at the height of summer. Gags along the picturesque avenue include a visual riff on the tendency of Gerard Depardieu (a vet of six previous Blier pics) to have motorcycle accidents, his fondness for alcohol and his God-like ability to stand up to cops. As ever, the language is amusingly frank and Blier has no use for any tenets of political correctness.Carried along on a wave of deadpan artistry, first 40 minutes in the restaurant and in public are terrific. Remainder of pic has its highs and lows, surges and lulls, with Maria Schneider’s tailor-made monologue packing an emotional wham. Other high points include an attempt to kill a man in a parking lot that conveys a hilarious critique of films about unemployed people shot in the bleak north of France starring non-professionals (an affectionate dig at “Humanity” and its ilk) and a shouting matchcummutual admiration bout between Marielle and Michel Piccoli.
There’s no plot to speak of, and no narrative glue beyond that much-desired pot of hot water and the built-in shorthand of famous performers lending their famous faces to flimsy segues.
In other episodic interludes, Alain Delon delivers a semi-maudlin yet authoritative monologue about the late Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura during amoody night shoot, Jean-Paul Belmondo amuses as a homeless man who dies laughing, and energetic vet Michel Serrault (in his third Blier pic) checks any traces of actorly reserve at the door except for an interrogation scene in which he makes poignant digs at French entertainment before and after the advent of television.
Snippets of jazzy, suspenseful and melodramatic music are a perfect fit. Ever-fluid widescreen camera revels in closeups, and the whole potentially unwieldy package benefits from controlled editing.
While some prominent local crix have already revealed the ending and given it a thumbs down, the quietly magnificent coda in which Blier himself appears with Claude Brasseur is a lovely nod to filial piety in showbiz dynasties. Final scene, like the film that precedes it, can be read as a playful call to arms or a eulogy.