The Volcano

July 12, 2014
Dany Boon & Valérie Bonneton in 'The Volcano' (2013)
Dany Boon & Valérie Bonneton in 'The Volcano' (2013)

For the second review I’d hoped to be writing about Beatriz’s War, the first ever feature from Timor-Leste. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired to prevent me seeing the film last week, so I’m falling back on a new French farce, The Volcano.

One always goes to see a comedy with a sense of anticipation. It should be fun, there will be nothing too deep or troubling, a healthy dose of laughter will leave one feeling good, and so on. The result is almost invariably a disappointment. It’s easy to smile but hard to laugh. The humour is diluted by a growing realisation that the film is so trivial or fatuous, one almost feels ashamed to waste the time. The outstanding exceptions this year have been The Wolf of Wall Street and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both unconventional comedies on an ambitious scale. Spike Jonze’s Her was perhaps more romance than comedy, even if the love affair was between a man and an operating system.

The Volcano is a more formulaic proposition. Perhaps the most arresting feature was its original title: Eyjafjallajökull – the name of the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010, scattering clouds of ash that grounded flights in Europe and provided a tongue-twister for the newsreaders of the world. The English-language release has sensibly adopted a more generic title.

Alain and Valérie are a divorced couple who both find themselves on the same flight to Greece, for their daughter’s wedding in Corfu. When the spread of volcanic ash forces the plane to land in Munich they are compelled to team up in order to reach their destination on time. It proves to be a singularly disastrous journey, in which one mishap follows hard on the heels of another.

The film is essentially a vehicle for Dany Boon, currently the biggest box office drawcard in France; and another popular star, Valérie Bonneton. Part screwball comedy, part road movie, it has affinities with American films such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), but also with a long line of Hollywood movies in which a couple trades wits, and occasionally blows, until an unlikely reconciliation occurs. Think of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, then dumb it down a few notches.

Where The Volcano stands out is in the sheer level of violence, and the bottomless depth of hatred Alain and Valérie feel for each other. Valérie is quickly established as a bitch, while Alain seems softer and more vulnerable, but it doesn’t take long for him to reveal a ruthless streak. During the first part of the journey, through various forms of skullduggery, each attempts to ditch the other by the side of the road and carry on alone. Thrown together again, by a sequence of bizarre accidents, they continue to hurl insults back and forth, even as a truce is grudgingly declared.

It seems that foreigners are no less hilarious for French audiences than they were for the makers of such timeless classics as National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985). Much of the humour is at the expense of the Slovenians, Croatians, Albanians and Greeks that Alain and Valérie must deal with on their 2,000 km journey to Corfu.

To be fair, the weirdest role of all is reserved for Denis Ménochet as Ezéchiel, a reformed French serial killer who has heard the word of God and transformed his mobile home into a travelling church, complete with holy water and hosts on demand; and a crown of thorns that drops down over the driver’s seat. Ménochet makes an excellent psychopath, with the encounter in the mobile home providing the funniest – and most extreme – scenes in a story that is barely more than a series of related sketches.

The Volcano strains towards sentimentality, particularly at the end, but the antagonism between Alain and Valérie is too fierce to permit of a comfortable resolution. Boon and Bonneton put in highly polished performances but the whiff of formula is too strong to be ignored. Grounded in Munich, the plot zig-zags towards Greece, but the comedy never gathers momentum.

The Volcano
Directed by Alexandre Coffre
Written by Laurent Zeitoun, Yoann Gromb & Alexandre Coffre
Starring Dany Boon, Valerie Bonneton, Denis Ménochet, Albert Delpy, Bérangère McNeese
France/Belgium, rated M, 92 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12 July, 2014.

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