Héro instantané. Ajoutez juste l’eau.
Vive le différence! While France is justly celebrated for its long tradition of brilliant and challenging cinema, Hollywood specializes in taking that brilliance and grinding it into slick pablum. In 1998, while millions of illiterates thrilled to the spectacle of Adam Sandler playing an angry manchild in “The Waterboy,” select intellectuals such as myself knew that this infantile farce was actually based on an obscure French film, “Le Garçon de l’Eau,” which is far superior in every way. Whereas “The Waterboy” swerves between being puerile, antic, and mawkish, “Le Garçon de l’Eau” is wise, witty, and investigates human nature with profundity and compassion.
Both films nominally concern a socially inept, sheltered, stuttering water-bearer for a collegiate sports team, suppressing a volcanic temper stemming from constant teasing and his mother’s emasculating manipulation, who realizes his talents as a dynamic athlete after learning to release his anger. Success leads to a relationship with sultry beauty Ms. Vallencourt (Fairuza Balk in the American version, the immortal Catherine Deneuve in the French), a confrontation with his mother (Kathy Bates and also Catherine Deneuve), and a final meeting with a rival university team.
“The Waterboy” pays homage to “Le Garçon de l’Eau” with its character names: the protagonist is Boucher, the quarterback is Grenouille, the enemy couch is Beaulieu, and the professional wrestler who is such an inspiration to Boucher has the stereotypical old French peasant name of Insano. Yet despite being completely identical, in “The Waterboy” these names lack the deep resonance of their appearances in “Le Garçon de l’Eau.” For example, the name Grenouille will be immediately recognized by all Frenchmen as a reference to the 16th century apothecary who taught Nostradamus how to rhyme (previously he had only been able to rhyme by adding the syllables “shizzle” into every word), thus setting the famous seer on his path to greatness—drawing an evocative parallel with the quarterback who taunted Boucher and thereby inadvertently unleashed his rage.
But the differences outweigh the similarities. Adam Sandler’s Boucher is hammy, merely ridiculous, and devoid of philosophical subtext, whereas the French Boucher (Gérard Depardieu) poignantly brings out the yearnings and contradictions in this complex character. For example, in the scene when Boucher screams “Medulla oblongata!” Depardieu invests the line with pathos, urgency, and his trademark wry charm, as well as raising serious issues about the role of autonomic brain processes in human behavior. Do our actions ultimately derive from neurochemistry and not free will? Does aggression in sport or war have a basis in evolutionary processes, an inheritance from our primate ancestors? All these meanings are inherent in Depardieu’s performance and conspicuously lacking in Sandler’s.
The scene when Boucher is told that he smells, and he replies, “Listen, you-you think what you want ab-about my personal hygiene, but please do-don’t waste any water. Tha-That’s bad policy,” is a perfect example of the gulf between the French and American films. Depardieu delivers the line in his characteristic nasal, childish, constipated voice, showing us the true meaning of humanity: water. Are we not after all primarily creatures of water? Does not all life spring from water? Sandler affects a similar voice but not nearly so effectively, nor is his delivery of the line as touching or funny. Also, Catherine Deneuve is light-years beyond Fairuza Balk in her effortless chic and elegance, especially in the scene where she shows her gazongas.
The film’s themes also extend to a socio-economic critique, in which “Le Garçon de l’Eau” shows far greater complexity than “The Waterboy.” In pitting a culturally and financially disadvantaged team, les Chiens de Boue, against the richer and more popular Lions de Montagne, “Le Garçon de l’Eau” shows a sensitivity and militancy in these issues that is nowhere to be found in the meeting between the Mud Dogs and the Cougars in “The Waterboy.”
In addition, “Le Garçon de l’Eau” possesses cinematography and editing that are worlds beyond the crude, prosaic façade of “The Waterboy.” As well it should, la belle France being the cradle of cinema! “Le Garçon de l’Eau” is made with scrupulous attention to detail, with a flat, even, television-style lighting that oozes panache.
“Le Garçon de l’Eau” truly is an unjustly neglected masterpiece.