When Charlie Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977, the whole world paid tribute to the passing of a comic genius. However, two down-on-their luck, unemployed immigrants living in Switzerland saw his passing as an opportunity – the answer to all their problems – and hatched a plan to dig up and steal his coffin and then hold the grieving Chaplin family to ransom. This is the initially intriguing premise for award-winning Of Gods and Men (2010) director Xavier Beauvois’ latest film and Venice Golden Lion hopeful The Price of Fame (2014), but unfortunately the execution proves extremely poor. The talented Benoît Poelvoorde ;plays Belgian crook Eddy, a thief who has just been released from prison.
Eddy is picked up by an old friend, Osman (Roschdy Zem), who lives with his daughter in a small, rickety hut. Osman works for the council but is having difficulty meeting his wife’s medical bills (she’s in hospital having work done on her hip). Eddy strikes up a friendship with Osman’s little girl Samira (Seli Gmach) and the two pass the time while dad is at work or the hospital by going on boat trips on the lake and visiting the local circus. When Chaplin passes away in nearby Vevey, Eddy has a brain wave and Osman is eventually persuaded by Eddy and his pressing financial worries to embark on a mad scheme to steal and ransom the body. Comedy is something of a departure for Beauvois, whose superb Of Gods and Men was a very sombre take on the last few months of a doomed Algerian monastery.
Sadly, The Price of Fame is the kind of departure that has him heading off in entirely the wrong direction with his suitcase on the roof of his car. Although there are scenes ripe for slapstick bungling, there is none of the surprise or grace of slapstick. Two men digging up and stealing a coffin could have been funny, but there’s just nothing here. The acting of the two leads is fine, but when Eddy gets the job of a clown having shown no aptitude and having no inclination for the job, one gets the feeling that Beauvois and his screenwriter Etienne Comar must think that either clowning is a doddle or that Poelvoorde’s performance thus far must have convinced the audience he’s a natural clown. It isn’t and he didn’t. With this insouciance, it’s no wonder that the funniest moment in the film comes when a clip of Chaplin is shown in a news report.
Add to this the cloying sentimentality that must persuade us to like Osman because he has a cute daughter and a sick wife, as well as a bizarre cameo by Peter Coyote as Chaplin’s butler Crooker, who becomes an unconvincing villain. The whole affair feels tasteless and wrong. The comedy isn’t funny, the drama hardly dramatic. The obvious talents of the actors and the director are wasted. Michel Legrand’s soundtrack explodes with a bombastic melodramatic score that has very little to do with what is happening on the screen and feels like a belated effort to lift The Price of Fame into the semi-decency of pastiche. When Chaplin’s body was recovered it was returned to Corsier cemetery and concrete was poured over it to deter any further disturbance. If you go there today, you might just be able to make out the noise of him spinning.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.