Or, in English, The Restaurant. Though, personally, I think the ‘grand’ of the original French title suits this film better, because the very grandness and importance of Septime—the eponymous ‘grand (or great) restaurant’—is what makes it the site of a very high-profile abduction…
I watched this film because I found it in a list of ‘food films’ and got very excited at the thought of an old food film. As it happened, there’s not that much food in Le Grand Restaurant, after all. Despite that, it’s a film worth watching.
I have a soft spot for crossover genre films: romance + noir, noir + Western, historical crime… and, very especially, crime plus comedy. Some of my favourite films, like I Soliti Ignoti, The Trouble With Harry, and Family Plot, all feature this combination: a crime (in some cases, more than one crime), combined with a solid dose of humour. Suspense and fun.
And here’s another.
M. Septime (Louis de Funès) owns the famous Septime restaurant in Paris. And he doesn’t just own it; he rules it. Every little thing—from the coats being handed over to a couple who’re leaving after a meal, to the antics of two waiters (who, unaware that Septime is looking on, are doing what look like imitations of strutting chickens)…
… to whether eggs mimosa should be garnished with tarragon or parsley—everything is personally supervised by Septime. He ticks off his waiters, left, right and centre; gets into arguments with the chef; but fawns all over his customers. If you’re a guest at Chez Septime, you can do no wrong in M. Septime’s eyes.
In fact, one day, to see for himself that his staff do treat his guests and run the restaurant as he would, Septime pretends to leave early to go visit his old mother—and then sneaks back in, wearing a flimsy disguise (a curly wig, no more) and fools everybody. He tries to do all he can to rattle the staff, but it isn’t until he gets outrageously demanding and unreasonable (he asks for a radish as main course, followed by yoghurt for dessert, and even then, isn’t satisfied)… that the waiter says something sarcastic.
And M. Septime throws off his disguise. So this is how his staff treat his guests! And that pianist—he’s been trying to pocket the change, too! Mon Dieu (as one of the maître d’s is apt to say)! M. Septime is furious, especially since a very important guest is to dine at the restaurant that evening: the President (Juan Ramirez) of some unnamed, Spanish-speaking country is visiting Paris, and he has asked for a table at Septime’s tonight.
In fact, in the course of the day, the President’s secretary, Sophia (Maria-Rosa Rodriguez) and his security in charge, Henrique (Venantino Venantini) come to Septime’s to check it out, choose a suitable table, and generally make sure all is well for the President’s visit.
Septime spends a good while tutoring his staff on the behaviour expected of them. The waiters are all made to practice skipping out of the kitchen with broad smiles and a light step (some mishaps occur in the course of this practice, but such is life).
The pianist is given two hours to learn a piece of music which M. Septime picks out. This will be played at a cue from M. Septime—M. Septime will rub his bald pate, so, to indicate that it’s time to start playing. And, to help out the pianist, a flautist is roped in from amongst the staff, and one waiter, whose father used to be a cellist, is made to play the violin.
That night, then, the President, Sophia, and Henrique arrive and are shown to their table by an effusive M. Septime. Just as they’ve sat down, M. Septime happens to rub his head, and immediately the trio clustered round the piano burst into music, obliging these three guests to rise to their feet. It’s a very embarrassing moment, since this seems to be the national anthem, and the three look most discomfited and taken aback.
After venting his frustration on the pianist by banging the piano top down on his fingers (ouch!), M. Septime goes off into the kitchen to make sure everything else, at least, is perfect. It is, thankfully, and the meal passes off to the satisfaction of both the President as well as M. Septime. Finally, it is time for dessert, a ‘surprise’ as M. Septime has planned it: a rather ugly-looking tower of what look like bananas, caramel-coated profiteroles, pineapple leaves and a pineapple planted on top.
With much fanfare, M. Septime douses this confection with liquor, has the lights all turned out, then lights a single match and holds it to the dessert—which blows up in his face.
When the lights come right back on, M. Septime, his face covered with soot, is busy trying to tell the President’s party that it was meant to be a surprise, after all—and the President’s party are trying to tell him that the President has disappeared.
Vanished. Abducted, from the middle of Septime’s restaurant. Sophia immediately calls for the police (Septime is much distressed at this; it will besmirch the name of his restaurant), and soon enough, the police are there. Heading the cops is the Commissioner (Bernard Blier), who happens to be a regular at Septime’s. In fact, he was there, looking on narrowly earlier that day, while Septime, in his ridiculous disguise, went about pretending to be a guest in his own restaurant.
Monsieur le Commissionaire now takes Septime off to his office and has a brief chat with him. Septime must know that he is the prime suspect. After all, it is his restaurant that the President vanished from. Overriding all of Septime’s protests, the Commissioner goes on to say that there will be a diplomatic crisis if the President isn’t found quickly. France’s honour is at stake, blah blah.
Eventually realizing that Septime really doesn’t know anything, the Commissioner shares some inside information: they have an idea who could have kidnapped the President. When the President came to power, he made a lot of enemies, some of whom have formed a terrorist group. They are the ones most likely to have a hand in kidnapping the President. Here, these are the known faces of the terrorists.
Septime has a close look, and the Commissioner tells him he has no choice but to help the police find the President. After all, Septime is the prime suspect; if he cannot unearth the President, he will find himself in deep trouble (Septime realizes he already is in deep trouble). Septime is given photos—nice large ones, too—of the three terrorists, and is told to look out for them. If he sees them, he is to inform the Commissioner at once. How? Just like that? What if he’s overheard? No, no. They’ll use a code. Three sneezes. If Septime sneezes thrice, the Commissioner will know what it’s all about.
And thus begins Septime’s quest to find the President who was abducted from his restaurant. A quest that will take him places, and will (literally) turn his world upside-down.
What I liked about this film:
Loved, really. Not merely liked. The sheer farce of it. Le Grand Restaurant never takes itself seriously (even though M. Septime takes himself and his restaurant very seriously indeed!) It’s a light-hearted, fun, frothy film that veers off every now and then into what is close to slapstick (really slapstick, to put it bluntly)—but it’s hilarious.
Hilarious in different ways. For instance, in the very physical aspects of it: the looniness that ensues while Septime is trying to teach his waiters how to bounce cheerily out of the kitchen into the dining area. Or what happens when Septime, driving a car, loses control of the steering because the President’s loyal secretary, Sophia, holds a gun to his head because she’s certain Septime is behind her boss’s disappearance.
There are some hilarious dialogues, and some situations that are funny. But most of all, there’s Louis de Funès, who, for me, has acquired the status of one of the funniest actors I’ve ever seen. He’s an artiste. Perfect comic timing, hilarious expressions, and oh, so good.
This isn’t a complex crime-and-comedy film like Charade or How to Steal a Million: the story is simple and uncomplicated. But it’s a delightful little film, and with some fine acting, not just by its hilarious lead, but by several of the others, too (Bernard Blier as the Commissioner is especially noteworthy).
What I didn’t like:
I would have liked the plot a little complex. It’s not bad as it is, but is perhaps a wee bit too simplistic. A couple of more twists, and it would’ve been even better.