Film 2020: Boule et Bill

I don’t really expect anyone else to share my enjoyment of the modest little film, the only one among the half dozen or so foreign language films in this half-season I have already watched.

Those who don’t read the posts I make here about comics will be wondering if I’ve gone off my head. For them, let me explain that, last year, whilst going through the British boys comic Valiant, I discovered they had reprinted a clearly French or Belgian series about a family and their cocker spaniel under the title ‘It’s a Dog’s Life’. It was brilliant and I loved it. Research quickly told me it was the very long-lasting ‘Boule et Bill’, written and drawn by Jean Roba, a Belgian cartonist working for the French cartoon magazine Spirou.

There seems to be a distinct children’s market in France in turning popular children’s characters into film and, six years after Roba’s death in 2006, Boule et Bill was turned into a film. Critically, it was panned, but commercially it was popular enough to spawn a sequel in 2017. After seeing a clip on YouTube, I was interested enough to chance the DVD. After watch it, I line up with the audience.

The film version is a period piece, set in 1976, and serves as a prequel to the comics series. Franck Dubois and Marina Fois play the parents of eight-year-old, red-headed Boule (Charles Comperz) and the cast is completed by Funky, a red-furred cocker spaniel as Bill (voiced by Manu Payet) and an unnamed tortoise as the family’s other pet, Caroline (voiced by Sara Giradeau). There’s only one major supporting role, that of the unnamed depressive downstairs neighbour, but unfortunately I can’t work out from the cast list, in French, who plays him. He’s very good in a stlised manner, whoever he is.

The story is simple. On a Sunday afternoon, the family drives put into the country to pick berries. Mama diverts them surreptitiously to an animal sanctuary (over the credits Boule has asked for a dog). Inside the sanctuary, an anxious, lonely red cocker spaniel assures himself unconvincingly that today’s the day he’ll be chosen, not that any of those who cross the bars of his kennel are suitable. By the time Boule arrives, Bill has given up, doesn’t want to know. But it’s love at first sight…

Papa doesn’t want a dog. He puts his foot down firmly, no dogs. They take Bill home, very slowly – Bill has joyfully rolled in poop, smells to high heaven and is a bit bemused over how his new family takes him for walks, running alongside the car on a lead held from inside. Then there’s the bath…

Papa doesn’t take to Bill at all at first. He’s concerned with his career as an appliances designer. He’s applied for a transfer to Head Office in Paris (Boule overhears the argument about his not telling Mama until he’s got it and misinterprets it as a divorce, a running gag in the film) and plans to leave Bill behind but the dog follows, spending most of the journey perched on the bumper of the van, worryng that the family just don’t knw how to do walks properly.

Their new home in Paris… well, within sight of Le Tour D’Eifell, is an elenenth floor apartment in Wisteria House, a single apartment block in an outsized builder’s yard. This is where the depressed neighbour comes in. He can’t tolerate noise, which puts the lid on Mama’s job as a Piano teacher, and as for the confined, bored, anxious Bill…

Papa’s move is not going well, his ideas being taken over by a ‘brownnoser’ at work. He can’t think or talk about anything else. Boule and Bill’s escapoades cause trouble everywhere. To try to occupy Bill’s mind whilst she gives lessons at little kid’s homes, Mama gives him Caroline for company – the tortoise is already in love with the cocker – leading to insanely silly games, as a result of which Caroline goes down the trash shute. Looking for her in the bin-store, Boule sets the rubbish alight…

Though Papa is starting to get fond of Bill, the impossibility of the situation has Mama insisting they give the dog away. The moment he overhears this, Boule runs away with Bill, though only to the bin room. Both parents are frantic with worry. Papa, to distract himself, starts drawing cartoon sketched of his son and his dog – yes, the Boule et Bill of the comic – which he screws up, drops down the trash chute, where Boule excitedly collects them. One such is not a cartoon but a draft of Papa’s resignation…

Boule has won. But before he can celebrate, the janitor wheels out the dumpster, with Bill in it, before locking the bn room to keep Boule out. Unfortunately, he’s still in…

This leads to a madcap chase following the garbage truck to the dump to save Bill from ending up in the incinerator. All’s well that ends well, and the family moves away to a house in a small town. There’s a boy with hair covering his eyes called Pouf, who becomes Boule’s other best friend, an elderly woman with a Charles de Gaulle fixation and a cat named Caporal next door… in short, the set up of the comic is set up.

And, in a nice touch, Papa whilst vacuuming under Boule’s bed, discovers the rescued sketches. Inspired, he comes up with more, asks Mama if she thinks these might be published by Spirou, to which she agrees they very well might, and goes on to suggested that Monsieur Roba is a very talented person…

In short, the film turns at the last minute into a massive metafiction and we all live happily ever after.

Oh, this is a children’s film alright, and not even a Pixar film, with the things to keep the grown-ups amused cleverly interwoven. No such seriousness is allowed to darken this lightweight and standard story. Dubois and Fois are good as the parents without ever straining themselves, and the latter looks authentically French-attractive without ever being unrealistically beautiful – she spends most of the film in long-sleeved blouses, knelength midi-skirts and knee-length boots, a nostalgic combination I’d sit and watch all morning. Young Comperz is a bundle of energy, and Payet catches the doggy-centric tone of voice of Bill’s thoughts perfectly, though the dog itself is the film’s one weakness: though Funky is well-trained, he’s a real-life cocker spaniel and the only one who can’t capture the look of the comic Bill.

The film employs it’s fair share of slapsticky gags around Bill, and uses the neat trick of going to widescreen for brief moments when we slip into Boule’s fantasies. But what it does is capture the comic’s tone of voice and sense of humour well enough for live action. The comic has been adapted to animation in two separate TV series, one standard cel animation, the other CGI, which are paradoxically weaker for failing to be exactly as Roba drew them.

I found it funny first time I watched it, and I laughed again at all the same points this morning. Unless you’re a French child, or closely in touch with one mentally, you’re unlikely to enjoy this the same way I did, who have 24 Boule et Bill hardback collections in the original French that I can barely read (a 1971 Grade 4 O-level isn’t the best qualification). If not, you may want to skip the Sunday when I get to Boule et Bill 2


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