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“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”–André Breton
DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier
FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,
PLOT: Soon after telling a man in the Paris subway about his fantasies of committing murder, Alphonse discovers the man dying with Alphonse’s own switchblade in his chest. Rushing home, he teams up with a police inspector and a hapless criminal who confesses to killing Alphonse’s wife. The trio goes out into the world, confronting both a variety of people who wish to kill them or to be killed by them.
- Writer-director Bertrand Blier won the César (France’s Oscar) for Best Writing for Buffet Froid. The film was also nominated in the cinematography, editing, and production design categories.
- Buffet Froid feels very Blier cast two actresses who had previously worked on films: and .
- Bernard Blier (Inspector Morvandieu) is the director’s father. It was his third appearance in one of his son’s films.
- The role of the man harassed by Alphonse in the subway is played by an uncredited Michel Serrault, who is probably best known as Albin in the original La cage aux folles.
- The opening scene is set in the Metro station at La Défense, which now sits directly underneath the monumental La Grande Arche building in the Parisian suburbs.
- The film was not released in the United States until 1987. American critics were fiercely negative.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the terrific jump cut when the leading trio is informed that they need to relax, and suddenly find themselves convalescing in front of a rustic cottage in the woods. But for a singular image, there’s great spectacle in the moment when a policeman responds to an emergency call only to find that he himself is the victim. His wide-eyed horror at being ushered into his deathbed while a string quintet assembles to serenade him into the great beyond is unforgettably hilarious.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: The widow moves in; assassin gets a head start in the water
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Buffet Froid is epic in its underplaying. Forget consequences; it posits a world where crime doesn’t pay because it doesn’t matter. The body count wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood thriller, but a strange combination of fear of dying and reluctance to be caught underlies everything. It’s telling that Alphonse doesn’t lose his cool when he finds his own knife sticking out of a dying man, or even when he discovers his wife’s murder (and murderer). No, it’s only when a man tells him bluntly, “Accept your responsibilities and I’ll be on my way” that he stops dead in his tracks. Buffet Froid depicts a world gone mad, but in the most controlled way possible.
Trailer for Buffet Froid
COMMENTS: Buffet Froid lays out its premise almost immediately. Have you ever dreamed of committing murder? Alphonse poses the question to a man in an empty subway station, and it’s immediately obvious that his answer is yes. The fact he has a switchblade on hand suggests eagerness, although his willingness to hand it over to a complete stranger hints at hesitation. Once the knife has actually been used, Alphonse seems not only horrified but determined to distance himself from the act. Thus begins a film-length attempt to escape the guilt, the shame, the responsibility that comes with even contemplating this most heinous of crimes.
It’s tempting to view the proceedings as an extended dream. The perverse logic, the way location is ever-changing while time is static, the complete lack of details and tertiary characters to fill out the space. (Alphonse’s apartment is sparsely furnished, and the closet contains a single dress belonging to his wife.) Circumstances escalate in ways that would be unbelievable if they didn’t just keep happening. A man shouldn’t just show up at Alphonse’s apartment to hire him for a murder. The victim’s wife shouldn’t have a steamer trunk ready to go so that she can move in with the complicit trio. And a policeman shouldn’t show up at a crime scene only to discover that the death he’s been sent to investigate will be his own. But all these things happen, because they do.
Even if you sign on to the dream theory, there’s a sinister tone of indifference that hints at a greater purpose, a sense of what this particular dreamer might be confronted with in the real world. Morvandieu, the inspector, is completely uninterested in doing his job except to save his own skin. The subway victim expresses no regret or remorse at his fate, even offering all the cash in his wallet that he will no longer need. Carmet’s unnamed murderer catches more flak for coming late to his flat than he does for his killing spree, while an assassin is extremely put out for having been tricked into targeting the wrong person. Even Alphonse’s wife, prior to her untimely demise, casually throws his bloody knife in the dishwasher. Arguably, we don’t meet a single person who seems concerned for the welfare of another until the film’s closing moments, and then only for vengeance. The dream of Buffet Froid is one of staggering indifference that plays as comedy specifically because of the blind eye it turns to the world’s cruelties.
When discussing Buffet Froid, a lot of comparisons will come up: the surrealism of Buñuel. The byzantine doom of Kafka. The bleak minimalism of Beckett. Alphonse’s fraught quest brings to mind ’s catastrophic efforts to cheat on his wife in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. These are all apt references, but I’d like to offer one that’s less literary but perhaps more pointed in assessing Blier’s style: George S. Kaufman’s 1925 sketch play “The Still Alarm,” in which the occupants of a hotel on fire consistently fail to regard the escalating calamity with anything greater than casual curiosity. They are determined to hold on to their stiff-upper-lip mentality long past the point when it shifts from amusing to fatal. Like those doomed guests, Depardieu & Co. seem to recognize the seriousness of the crimes in which they are entwined, but are entirely too concerned with their ingrained habits and hyperconfident sense of self to change course even slightly.
Buffet Froid is a genuinely funny film when viewed as a comedy of misplaced manners. However, the moment you start to see any echoes of its attitudes and behaviors in the living world, it becomes an ominous tragedy. Perhaps this is why the movie has never outgrown a cult following. The dishes at this buffet are as cold as ice.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The best way to enjoy this very, very strange film is to let it transport you to the Wonderland where its kooky characters reside, and then get comfortable in their company.”–Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: Buffet Froid (1979)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Director’s Guild of America – Bertrand Blier – The director speaks with the DGA about the experience of directing his father.
French Films.org – James Travers offers a thoughtful retrospective, comparing the self-centered world of the film to the one in which we live today
Buffet Froid (1979) | Mubi – Mubi’s Buffet Froid page offers basic information but lively commenting from users
APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979) – ’s original review for this site
HOME VIDEO INFO:
Though a cult hit in France, Buffet Froid had been difficult to catch in the U.S. until Kino Classic released it in 2019 on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy). Both formats include the same special features: a twenty-five minute archival interview with director Blier, a commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton, the trailer, and a supplemental booklet.
At the time of this writing, Buffet Froid was available free (with ads) on Tubi.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)