In “Monsieur Batignole,” a Gentile butcher gets a crash course in Jewish reality when a young escapee neighbor falls into his lap during the summer of 1942. Well-crafted, bittersweet comedy, in which an ordinary fellow in Nazi-occupied France behaves heroically despite himself, zips along with an entertaining and witty blend of close calls and despicable behavior counteracted by human resourcefulness. In his eighth stint behind the camera, multihyphenate star Gerard Jugnot has fashioned a fine package, ready to travel. Pic was top grosser the day it bowed in Gaul.
Edmond Batignole (Jugnot) runs a small butcher shop and catering establishment in Paris. His shrewish wife, Micheline (Alexia Portal), mans the cash register. Living with them in cramped quarters on the premises are their twentysomething daughter, Marguerite (Michele Garcia), and her fiance of two years, Pierre-Jean Lamour (Jean-Paul Rouve), an aspiring playwright who admires the Germans and is only too happy to inform on Jews.
Pic opens on July 15, 1942, as the Bernstein family is about to abandon its well-appointed apartment two flights up from Batignole’s shop to flee to Switzerland. Surgeon Max Bernstein (Sam Karmann) has a wife, a daughter and a bright young son, Simon (Jules Sitruk).
Pierre-Jean tricks his future father-in-law into delaying Dr. Bernstein while he dutifully informs SS Colonel Spreich (Gotz Burger) that some wealthy Jews are about to get away. After the Bernsteins are captured, Pierre-Jean arranges for their apartment to go to him and the Batignoles.
Edmond is drafted to cater the SS colonel’s social gatherings. Things are swell until young Simon, who’s escaped, comes knocking on the door of his family’s erstwhile abode.
Edmond hides the lad first in the maid’s room, then in the cellar, where he is unexpectedly joined by two young female cousins. The butcher finds himself protecting the children and resolves to get the three to safety in Switzerland.
Pic’s characters are stereotypes, but the evolving situations are so deftly handled that the narrative accomplishes what the best mass-audience films do — entertaining the viewer while providing food for thought. Luck (both good and bad) is a huge component of the protags’ journey, which is perilous yet marbled with genuinely funny incidents.
Pic offers vivid examples of both casual and large-scale profiteering and doesn’t shy away from depicting the zeal with which some French authorities collaborated with the Germans. Period re-creations are spot-on.
Apart from an artistic dance number in a cabaret featuring topless beauties,film about the joint dilemmas of children and adults is suitable for older children. Students of prior films about the era may spot traces of Claude Berri’s “The Two of Us” or Joseph Losey’s “M. Klein,” among others, but the prevailing inspiration here clearly is a personal quest with a universal reach.
Projecting exceptional intelligence as well as complete boyishness, Sitruk is outstanding as Simon. Jugnot makes Edmond a believable everyman who’s oblivious to the rotten underbelly of the status quo, yet responds when a modest chance for greatness is thrust upon him.
Khalil Chahine’s score is a model of how not to clobber auds with musical emotions.