Miranda Sawyer - Foreign affairs

Film - A cerebral comedy and a sci-fi cartoon get lost in translation, writes Miranda Sawyer


Humour, like fashion, does not al-ways travel well. An embroidered Moroccan kaftan looks great swi-shing around a souk in Marrakesh, but isn't quite the thing behind a Tesco's trolley. And the pratfall that reduced an entire bar in Greece to tears of mirth somehow doesn't get a smile from grim-faced British locals. Lost in translation? Maybe. Or maybe it wasn't that funny to begin with. And here I feel forced to cite Les clefs de bagnole, a French film that tries its utmost to be hilarious, but didn't raise a giggle from me or my watching companion. We could see the jokes all right. They just didn't bite us on the bum.

Les clefs de bagnole means "the car keys", and the entire film is based on the premise that the star, the comedian Laurent Baffie, has lost his. We follow him and his companion Daniel Russo on a series of daft adventures supposedly hooked to the finding of said keys.

The "joke" is that we all know that it's a weak idea for a film: Baffie and Russo soon pull out of the script into a discussion of what makes a film good or not, whether flashbacks or cut sequences actually happen, whether the scriptwriter and director (both Baffie) know what is going to occur or not. It's kind of smart, but it doesn't make you laugh.

It reminds me of stoned students creating a stand-up routine. They imagine a scenario and then take it to its local conclusion: intellectually amusing, perhaps, but it wouldn't work at Jongleurs on a Friday night. In real life, that stuff ain't funny.

Les clefs de bagnole certainly packs in the gags. There is surreal humour, postmodern humour, food-based humour. Some people might find the surrealism funny, but personally I think incongruity is cheating. We can all think of a talking dog; it's what it says that makes you laugh. Similarly, the food stuff doesn't work. A beautiful, multi-course meal is put into a blender for quick consumption. This might be funny in France; in Britain, it seems remarkably practical. But mostly there is clever-clever humour, plus musings on the nature of film and acting, and deconstruction to the nth degree. Every joke is from the head, not the funny bone, and is milked for too long.

A British audience used to the subtleties of character-based comedies (The Office, The Royle Family) and quick-fire sketch shows (The Fast Show, Little Britain) will find Les Clefs odd fare. It's old-fashioned and irritating, with no through-thought or satire to give weight or hold the film together. In the end, the jokes don't make it even halfway across the Channel, but flounder in the shallows around Dieppe.

Sky Blue is another foreign affair: this time, a futuristic Korean cartoon. Let's bring back our stoned students. They would love this film. We are given a wonderfully complete and aesthetically satisfying world - our world, but in 2142AD, after an ecological disaster has caused permanent damage, wiping out most human beings and causing weather-shifts that leave the sky permanently dark and clouded. The elite live in Ecoban, a Matrix-style city that relies for resources on the Diggers, Mad Max-type refugees who live outside, in the wrecked remains of the old world.

The story is fairly lame - evil Ecoban rulers, a noble Digger hero and a long-lost love on the other side. It's the animation that keeps you hooked. The sets are truly amazing: apparently constructed from 3D models, they have a detail and sensibility all of their own. There's a lot of motorcycle action, and even the shots of the road are mesmerising.

The characters, though, pale against such detail. They remind me of the kids' cartoons that came in after Hong Kong Phooey - pretty-boy action heroes with faces as girlish and unemotional as their chop-sockying female sidekicks. In Sky Blue, the characters' uniform sweetness and punk haircuts make them indistinguishable. They never seem much more than two-dimensional transfers, cut-and-pasted on to a living, scary dystopia. They fade into the background, or rather, the background swallows them up.

Still, the music and the setting are gorgeous enough to keep you watching, at least if you're under 25 and haven't much to do tomorrow. In fact, if you are one of our guinea-pig students and have been smoking all evening, you might want Sky Blue on constant replay. It would look lovely on a plasma screen, next to one of those lamps in the shape of a teddy bear. You could turn the sound down and switch your iPod to a "mellow" playlist. Soon, it will be morning.

Mark Kermode is away

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