"Breast or Leg?" opens the last chapter of Louis de Funès' career before his death in 1983. Following the decline of his health, caused by a stroke in 1975, he looked older and thinner than usual, much different from his last energetic and spectacular performance in "The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob". Indeed, he would never have to act 'mad' whether in the crazy or angry sense of the word.
Actually, this was less a medical clause than the actor's personal desire: mortality rhymed with maturity. Yet, from the public's perspective, he was still known for his hilarious tantrums à la Donald Duck, his grimaces, and his unique way to play sneaky individuals, authoritarian with the weak, and submissive with the strong, De Funès created a character most French people could identify with: the average bourgeois little chief. And in France, people went to see a De Funès movie not a film with De Funès. In 1976, they had waited for 3 years, the longest time the box-office champ ever deserted the screen.
I insist on this, because this is one of the cases where you can't judge the film out of its context: De Funès' health called for a more restrained acting and because his absence left some room for newcomers, Claude Zidi the director wanted Pierre Richard, the rising (goofy) face of French Comedy to play De Funès' son. Richard declined the script, unconvinced, so the role went to Coluche, another comedic legend who could at least provide the physical energy usually expected from De Funès. As a matter of fact, it was still hard to steal the veteran's thunder and De Funès didn't play a static role either. Still, the script was in all nuance and soberness, which was in line with the character of Charles Duchemin, food critic and editor of a famous touristic guide, obviously a fictionalization of the 'Michelin'.
This isn't the first time De Funès plays a figure in the world of cooking: he was 10 years earlier the head of "The Great Restaurant" and he was the perfect ambassador of French gastronomy. Here he strikes again as a judge who give restaurants stars that can multiply their benefits by three or ten, either remove them, or worse, give a disastrous critic, causing their bankruptcy. The movie is very attentive to show all the aspects of Duchemin's job, from the office work to the way he takes wine and sauces with syringes and put them in little containers hidden in his suits, and 'accidental' entrances in the kitchens. De Funès can put on his most popular trademarks, disguises: from an old woman to an American tourist etc. And these parts go from appetizing to heart-wrenching moments, swinging between the best and the worst that can ever land in your plate.
It is also a nice touch to have his chauffeur (played by veteran actor Henri Buissières) sitting at the same table during some of these culinary escapades, they're like people who've known each other for a long time. There is also Marcel Dalio ("Rabbi Jacob") as the tailor and Claude Gensac, who played many times De Funès' wife and she makes a touching cameo as his secretary Marguerite. Actually, the film is filled of true and endearing movie characters, on the top of them: Coluche as Gérard, the son, a circus performer who'd better wear his clowns suit than daddy's new Academician uniform. We have here a sweet father-and-son subplot as Gérard doesn't want to hurt his father's feelings and needs his money anyway to make the circus work. And talk about bad luck, just when he finds the guts to tell his father he wants to quit, a new Dutch secretary comes to join them. Her name is Marguerite, like the former, except that she's blonde and younger and very cute, Gérard stays. We know his constant round-trips between the circus and the restaurants won't last and the obligatory confrontation is tackled with humor and a kind of resigned silent anger, a real departure from De Funès' usual antics.
But all the nice touches wouldn't have worked if the film didn't have an antagonist of the same magnitude as Duchemin. And this is the element that sealed the film's ticket to posterity: everyone remembers the name 'Tricatel', the symbol of French industrial food, the nemesis of healthy, traditional, hand-made cooking, an opportunistic CEO, inspired by Jacques Borel, the inventor of 'road-restaurants' along the highways, and who obtained tax decreases for food products. Tricatel built his fortune on highways too, then bought declining restaurant and provided them food from his factories, and one of the most memorable sequences is the discovery of the scientific (but not very orthodox) mechanisms of food-making (calling it cooking would be a blasphemy).
Character actor Julien Guiomar, plays the role of a lifetime, forever remembered as the 'Tricatel' guy, a name that has even supplanted Borel as a synonym of bad food in French pop-culture. And while Guiomar and Coluche can get energetic and physical, in between, De Funès has the crusader's quiet strength and still manages to be funny in his usual register. And the final confrontation in Phillippe Bouvard's show delivers a remarkable showcase of acting and one of De Funès' finest moment when he's guessing the name of a wine.
"Breast or Leg?" is a pivotal movie in De Funès' career and ever since I saw it at the age of 9, I never forgot the whole "Duchemin vs. Tricatel" antagonism and that hilarious clown sequence with Coluche, so typical of De Funès' movies to be appealing for kid and adults, or the adults they become. Also a honorable mention to Vladimir Cosma who signed one of his most memorable scores, starting with the pompous solemnity of French gastronomy and then a light-hearted kitschy tune, as if it was illustrating the real exhilaration of cooking, it's more about fun than stars... which can actually be said about the film.