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2017

Travelling light: the joy of foreign-language comedy

  • The Other Side of Hope

The Other Side of Hope will screen at LOCO 2017


May 2017

On the eve of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, programmer Jonathan Wakeham examines how foreign-language comedies can bring us together.

One of the oldest truisms of the film industry is that foreign-language comedies don't work. That's often true of mainstream hits, which tend to lean on local culture, traditions and celebrities — much like British popular successes such as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa or Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie.

Beyond the multiplex however, there are both occasional break-out hits — like Amélie (2001) or The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2017) — and fully-fledged auteurs like Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson who build international careers out of making people laugh. So what is the secret to cross-cultural comedy success?

More unites us than divides us

While some politicians seem intent on driving us all further apart, we still have far more shared experiences than separate ones. Like the tween punks of Lukas Moodysson's We Are The Best! (2013) we have all felt rebellious and lonely. Like the young urbanites in Gustavo Taretto's Medianeras (2011) we will all seek, and sometimes struggle, to find love. And like the hero of Hannes Holm's Oscar-nominated A Man Called Ove (2016) we will all someday feel old and left behind. There will always be humour in the human condition, because we are all the butt of the joke.

Nobody's perfect

Comedy tends not to give us conventional heroes. Its characters are flawed and often fragile, caught in traps of their own making with no visible way out. But this makes them easier to connect with than Avengers, because they can't be certain they will win. Instead, like us, they know that there's no sequel; that this, despite its manifest disasters, is the only story they will have. And so, like us — like Gaby in Sophie Letourneur's Gaby Baby Doll (2016), or Christophine in Marie Madinier's Arctic Heart (2016) — they are forced to travel hopefully, always searching for the light.

I read the news today, oh boy

Some stories affect all of us, whatever our culture, and comedy at its best can approach even the toughest subjects with honesty, humanity and hope. Kheiron's Nous Trois Ou Rien (2016) looks at France's contemporary debate around identity through the lens of an Iranian family, while Aki Kaurismäki's Berlinale Best Director prizewinner The Other Side of Hope (2017) is a tragicomic masterpiece about the friendship that develops between an ageing Finnish salesman and a young Syrian refugee.

All you need is love

We all have to live with both our own flaws and those of the world we inhabit. And the thing that makes all of them bearable is love. In comedy, of course, that's rarely simple, whatever kind of love that may be. From the young hipster couples in Marie Kreutzer's We Used To Be Cool (2016), struggling to adapt to life with children, to Isabel in Inés París's The Night My Mother Killed My Father (2016), who's afraid of losing her boyfriend along with her acting career, love is never easy and occasionally unkind.

But comedy, at heart, is generous. Whatever culture they may come from, most comedies — from Jacques Tati to Tampopo — end up in the kitchen or the bedroom: in the places where people come together. And isn't that what we are also doing, watching the movies together, laughing in the dark?

The LOCO London Comedy Film Festival returns to BFI Southbank 4-7 May, for more information visit locofilmfestival.com.