Monday, March 28, 2011

Le Gros e le Maigre - The Absurdity of Life

A young man sits in a field banging away at a drum and playing random notes on a recorder. Some 30 or so feet away, we see a middle-aged man dozing in a rocking chair. These two characters are situated in front of a simple, elegant country house that while still handsome, has fallen into a state of disrepair.

So begins the charming short film Le Gros e le Maigre (The Fat and the Lean), made in 1961 by Roman Polanski. I only recently discovered this film, as I was doing research for my Polanski blogathon (the film is on YouTube) and am glad I found it, as it contains a number of themes Polanski would explore in his feature films throughout his career, namely the randomness of life along with the absurdity of everyday living.

Polanski himself plays the young man, who is clearly a servant to the older man. Initially the man wakes up and signals to his servant that his playing is too loud and that he should come over to him (there is no dialogue in this film); he does so and the elder man plays the drum and motions for his servant to dance. He does so barefoot, twirling every which way like a clumsy ballerina; Polanski's movements in this scene are quite hilarious.

The young servant must do everything the elder man wishes and these tasks range from fanning him (with a rake!) to create a cool breeze, putting his feet in a tub of water and even wiping the sweat off his brow and putting a lit cigar in the his mouth. The servant does this with great energy, as though he has no choice in the matter.

Then one day he glances out a window of the house as he is preparing a meal. He sees the skyline of Paris, but it is real or is it an illusion? No matter - he sees it and in so doing, realizes there is another world he can inhabit. The rest of this 15 minute film revolves around whether the servant can escape to his dreamland or if he must remain in servitude.

There is a lovely sparse musical score that plays up the offbeat moments of this story beautifully, but in eassence, this is a silent film. Polanski's character was at least in some ways inspired by Chaplin's tramp and indeed, his little dance has a lot of Chaplinesque movements to it.

But this story becomes much more bizarre than Chaplin's world. The elder man does everything he can to keep his servant once he realizes that he wishes to escape. At one point, he even chains him to his goat and it's quite comical to see the servant dance for his master while tied to the goat. The way it's filmed, you feel bad for both the servant and the goat, as the animal just wants to eat grass, but it pulled in several directions by the servant's gyrations while dancing for his dominating master.

Le Gros e le Maigre is filled with offbeat moments that bring a smile to your face all while you ponder the absurdity of the servant's existence. Throughout the director's career, the hopelessness of one's situation in life is a common theme, especially as portrayed in Tess (1979) or The Pianist (2002). Though constantly in view of his master, the servant is quite lonely; think of the isolation of characters such as Richard Walker in Frantic (1988), Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby (1968) or Carol in Repulsion (1965).

But while a common theme of Polanski's films is that the evil lives on, in this short film, the servant finds a beautiful measure of peace at the conclusion of the episode. I won't spoil it, but his moment of sheer joy and independence is a lovely one that must have emerged from a moment of inspiration by Polanski (perhaps this goes back to his youth when he survived the horrors of life in the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940s.) His escape in this short film may or may not be to Paris - or the illusion of Paris - but his physical and spiritual separation from his master at film's end represents in a small way the triumph of good over evil.


  1. I am so happy you liked it! Interesting that your interpretation is so different from mine (and as far as the finale is concerned, directly opposite). As you said, this is the beauty of film reviewing.
    The score is great indeed: Krzysztof Komeda wrote for all Polanski's films (except Repulsion) till his untimely death in 1969.

  2. Interesting, Tom. I've never seen The Fat and the Lean--I might have to watch it on YouTube one of these days. The notion of servants being indebted to their masters is definitely one of Polanski's typical themes: the one example that first comes to mind for me is that burly secretary to the satan-worshipping old woman in The Ninth Gate (the one who spills a bag of oranges after Depp knocks it over). That Polanski's servant character in this film is inspired by Chaplin makes me grin, too, since Polanski would later refer to Chaplin in Repulsion after Catherine Deneuve has the laughing fits over the "chicken" gag from The Gold Rush.

  3. Interesting Jean, but fables often have that effect on us - I do see this as a fable.

  4. Adam:

    I'm sure you'll love this film. There are so many sight gags that I haven't even described.

    Excellent point about Repulsion.