A fictional tragicomedy inspired by an actual incident — in which the lead actor in a Vichy-financed biopic disappeared a week before its wrap — “The Happiest Place on Earth” explores the countless compromises made by gentile producers, directors and technicians eager to keep working during the German Occupation. Set in Paris in 1942, pic shifts from an often funny crash course in studio filming to a poignant reminder of the cruel ethnic-racial policies at work in occupied France. Thesp-strewn endeavor — which marks the return of vet Marcel Bluwal, 74, to the cinema after a 35-year hiatus — is a touch too didactic to truly shine but should find slots in fests and series devoted to movies about making movies.
Soon after France capitulated to the Nazis, all Jews were barred from filmmaking, which opened up a certain number of opportunities for non-Jews, particularly those willing to glorify the so-called “National Revolution.” Urged on by big-wheel Col. Valogne (Thierry Lhermitte), inexperienced documaker Vignault (Didier Bezace) and novice producer Couperin (Jacques Bonnaffe) agree to transform their project for a docu about heroic pilot Mermoz, who disappeared at sea in 1936, into a biopic with actors. So-so stage actor Robert Hugues Lambert (Jean-Claude Adelin) is recruited for the lead simply because he looks like the real Mermoz.
Slated to be shot entirely in the studio, the film is endangered just two days into shooting when an official from the Bureau of Jewish Affairs, who is also a film critic, forces Couperin to cut two major characters, including Mermoz’s friend and fellow aviator Antoine de St. Exupery (author of “The Little Prince”), on grounds that he’s been soft on the need to eliminate Jews. When screenwriter Ginette Maurey (helmer’s wife Daniele Lebrun, great fun) watches rushes in which St. Exupery has been turned into a generic character called “The Poet,” she stalks off.
The “Mermoz” crew shifts to filming nights instead of days when a curfew is instituted, but the production successfully weathers the crises that are part of filmmaking even in peacetime. And, surprisingly, with help from adoring continuity girl Lucie (Marianne Denicourt), Lambert turns into a better performer with every scene.
With a week to go on a tight shoot and a gala premiere at the Paris Opera locked in, Lambert (who’s in every scene) vanishes. Inquiries reveal he’s interned in a camp at Drancy, just outside Paris, even though he’s not Jewish. The crew hits on a solution worthy of Ed Wood — but saving the film and saving Lambert are two different things.
Bluwal tells his story with efficient if uninspired strokes, and most names in the cast find themselves flattened into perfs better suited to episodic TV than the bigscreen. Still, venture benefits from its powerful basis in fact and conveys the necessary basics about the legit stage, actors’ egos, soundstage procedures, cafe banter and the fine art of greasing the right palms for favors or information. The stagey, B&W movie-within-the-movie is a hoot.
Adelin is very good as the hulking thesp with an unusual secret, Denicourt moving as the young married mom who falls for him, and Brasseur just right as Delabit, the pragmatic businessman who oversees the production.
Helmer Bluwal, himself Jewish, began working in the film industry in 1946 and in TV three years later; he had been aware of the little-discussed Lambert/”Mermoz” story since 1945. Co-scripter Grumberg shared dialogue duties on Truffaut’s “The Last Metro,” which took place in the Gallic theater milieu during the Occupation. For the record, director of the actual “Mermoz” movie, released in 1943, was Louis Cuny; in current pic, all characters except Lambert are fictional.