Criterion Prediction #8: Le Magnifique, by Alexander Miller
Title: Le Magnifique/ The Magnificent One
Director: Philippe De Broca
Cast: Jean Paul Belmondo, Jacqueline Bisset, Vittorio Caprioli, Hans Meyer
Synopsis: Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as Francois Merlin, whose never ending stream of spy novels based around his fictional catalyst Bob Sinclar becomes the catalyst for his romantic fascination with neighbor Christine (Bisset), the love interest when Merlin becomes lost in his own creation. Not unlike James Bond, Bob Sinclar is cooler than cool; he gets his lady, thwarts countless assassins and henchmen as well as (stepping in for Blofeld) his greedy publisher Pierre Charon. The ensuing narrative is one where fact, fiction romance, identity, art, and the creative process merge into an utterly charming and unique narrative.
Critique: While Francois Merlin’s escapist fantasy is presented as if this were entirely a comic spy movie – the first twenty minutes are uninterrupted, hyperbolic action – we soon realize that we are in the protagonist’s alternate universe. This wall is broken as if staged by Luis Bunuel when we see (who we learn is) Merlin’s maid vacuuming her way through Bob Sinclair’s one man war against a small army to enter a freestanding door in the midst of flailing bodies and gunfire. Bringing us into the reverse rabbit hole to the real world; ironically surrealism serves as the transport to the film’s material setting. Le Magnifique is one those special films that feels remarkably ahead of it time just by how damn smart it is. The distinctive genre parody and referential structure makes the film feel like the brainchild of Spike Jonze or Ben Stiller yet it predates the modern arbitrators of genre bending by decades. Still, Le Magnifique feels fresh and modern enough to stand alongside films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Tropic Thunder. One might think that this metafiction storyline would be patronizing of its subject, and while it is an obvious satire of the Bond films (especially in the early 70’s as the series was entering the Roger Moore era), the film is an endearing send up. While the hyperactive animated spirit of Merlin’s world of espionage has the body count and excess to match the material it’s aping. The film has the pulse and rhythm more in concert with National Lampoons and Monty Python. And the rapid fire of successive jokes elevates the satirical tone from fun to uproarious. With all this going on, there’s also a human component with the film’s core narrative about the struggling writer who falls in love with his neighbor.
The core truth is that Le Magnifique is an incredibly fun movie. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset are perfectly cast in their lead roles, and you can just tell Belmondo is having a ball hamming it up as the spy man extraordinaire Bob Sinclar.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: In Xan Cassavetes documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, FX Feeney referred to Le Magnifique as “the quintessential Z Channel movie” and the diverse programming regimen of the Z Channel (from 1974 to 1988) had a lot in common with Criterion’s home video releases over the years, going back to VHS and Laserdisc. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Le Magnifique would also be a quintessential Criterion release should this come to fruition. Le Magnifique does have a Blu-Ray release. However, it’s a Region B disc distributed by Studio Canal with no English subtitle translation; this is one of those instances where the right movie fell into the wrong hands because this is a film that truly fits in the Criterion wheelhouse. It would be quintessential, falling in with the various other Criterion titles starring Belmondo (Le Doulos, Breathless, Pierrot le fou) whose international acclaim is at the level of Alain Delon. Also, it’s a quirky, fun, entirely unique and relatively unseen outside its native country. If Le Magnifique received the Criterion treatment, it would without a doubt change that by bringing the film to the wider audience it deserves.