This weekend a cattle call was held for Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion. I thought about going and trying to be an extra. Then I read an article about Saturday’s casting session. Thousands of people showed up. All were hoping to be caught on camera a moment and thus be immortalized or at least earn some bragging rights and easy dough. When I saw a picture of the lines and read that non-union extras would make $64 a day plus meals, my own little fantasy went poof. Everyone who loves movies would love to be in one. I’m no exception, but I have a strong practical side, and it asked me, “Why lose hours waiting to audition for something that even if won would amount to so little?” Perhaps I was influenced by the latest movie I am watching, Le Schpountz.
Le Schpountz stars beloved French comedian Fernandel. He is the title character. Schpountz seems to be a hard word to translate. One source says it means simple-minded, while another describes it as a country bumpkin, while a third states it’s a person with an overblown sense of self-importance. Marseillais filmmaker Marcel Pagnol became familiar with a schpountz on the set of Angèle. Convinced he was an undiscovered star, a local man pestered Pagnol and his crew daily. They grew tired of his antics and gave him a fake contract which promised him not just any role, but one that was supposed to be Charles Boyer‘s.
Le Schpountz echoes Pagnol’s experience. Fernandel plays Irénée. He toils away in his uncle‘s shop daydreaming of a better life. When a film crew experiences car trouble and stops to buy a pan, Irénée is convinced a divine intervention has happened. Still in his pajamas he hops on the back of their car to follow them. Once he befriends them, he rushes back home and dresses in his best suit to present himself to them properly. He needs their validation, and he performs a number to show them his talent. He doesn’t realize they are mocking him, and he is taken when presented a contract offering fantastic terms that no diva or divo ever had the presumption to demand. He will go to Paris to his stardom.
Here is the majority of the scene where the concept of a schpountz is explained:
The filmmakers are presented as an arrogant sort. They know the excitement their presence generates, and they know that a good number of the people they meet will want something from them–affirmation, yet those people drawn to the crew can recognize their own fault in others, but not themselves. They are comedic, but ultimately more sympathetic.
And everything turns meta when Irénée auditions. After all he is Fernandel, and Fernandel has presence and he can entertain. We laugh at his antics not only because his character is silly, but also because such silliness is played with great skill and charisma.
I was too tired from my Utah trip to finish the film the other night, but I’m looking forward to watching the rest with my husband tonight. I’m eager to see what happens to Irénée when he reaches Paris. He can live the dream for all of us, wherever Pagnol decides it takes Irénée.