19 June 2009

Elie Kakou

Madame Sarfati: Que me vaut l’honneur de cette visite?

The tenth anniversary this month of the death of comic Elie Kakou has been the occasion of commemoration: a book, a “Best Of” DVD, a television documentary, many tributes, and in anticipation of all this, a truly spiffy official website, full of clips, quotes, and pictures. In short, nothing but reminders of his prodigious talent — and of how much more he might have achieved, if only he hadn’t died so damned young. I became aware of his work only a few years ago, appreciating not only his wit and his insight into the human condition, but also his uncanny ability to speak French in such a way that I understand everything he says.

Born in Tunisia to a Jewish family in 1960, Kakou grew up in Marseille. Like Lily Tomlin’s, his stage act consisted of a portrait gallery of brilliantly realized oddballs, and many of his characters sprang directly from his personal background: his best-known character, Madame Sarfati, a zaftig Jewish immigrant and housewife, was patterned after Kakou’s grandmother and other relatives; Les Professeurs, at once terrifying and ludicrous, reflected his high-school teachers; Le Kakou (photo at right) was a pint-sized Marseille tough, forever ready to “crrrrrrrush” those who give him trouble. Though his website cites first and foremost his use of costumes, those were in reality rather slapdash, and it’s Kakou’s observational gifts that brought these portraits to life. He captures the telling gesture, the turn of phrase, the emotional core of each character. You realize that he must have consecrated an enormous percentage of his too-short life to studying people, and the documentary confirms this.

He mixed the distinctive (and sometimes bizarre) with the universal, and perhaps no other character sums up that mixture better than Madame Sarfati. I haven’t known many Tunisian-Jewish immigrants in this country, but I have known plenty of mothers. As Madame Sarfati frets about her daughter, Fortunée — “35 years old already and still not married!” — and her wandering husband, too, I see real women I’ve known, and sentiments I’ve heard often, albeit seldom in heavily accented French with frequent interjections in Hebrew and Arabic. Heavily padded, too, she is nevertheless wonderfully graceful, like most of Kakou’s characters, testifying to his mime training and his love of dance.

In some routines, Kakou also portrayed Fortunée herself, an aspiring dancer of limited skill and the unfortunate heir to her mother’s generous hips. But she’s ingenious, ready to do whatever it takes to land a part. At one point, she tells a casting director that, if there’s anybody he wants bumped off, she knows where to find a hit man. Yeah, I’ve known a few actresses like Fortunée.

Le Prof d’Anglais: What is ze day, today?

Presumably employed at a parochial school, the Professeurs all wear the same hassock, looking (to their chagrin) like Gargamel in The Smurfs, but they’re clearly delineated according to the subject matter they teach. The Prof de Français is a wizened, nasty-tempered old tyrant. “Describe for me in a single word the character of Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir,” he says, before pointing to a female student, also played by Kakou.

“Well,” she replies hesitantly, “I think that Julien Sorel is the kind of person who — ”

“I said one word!” barks the Prof de Français. “Zero!”

The Prof de Sport is a harried fool who doesn’t know he’s got a paper fish stuck on his back (the French equivalent of a “Kick Me” sign). The Prof d’Anglais has pretty good grammar but a lousy accent, and some of the strangest language exercises you ever heard: “Repeat after me! Voulez-vous repeat after me? What is ze difference between a chicken and a house?”

One of the Profs interrupts himself at several points to deliver the following warning: “If I catch any one of you talking — whispering — chattering — I’ll send you STRAIGHT to the office of the principal, Monsieur Popp!” (He pronounces that name in something less than one syllable, by the way.) I never went to high school in France, yet I grew up with all these teachers.

L’Attachée de Presse: Just like a flower!
Pitching Plouf Detergent with Lemon — three slices!

My personal favorite is the Attachée de Presse, who reminds me precisely of a couple of real-life press attachés I’ve worked with. (No, not all of them, and no, I’m not telling which ones.) Blithe and bonny and not quite competent, she typically makes her appearances whenever Elie Kakou is ostensibly engaged offstage. Most often, she wants to locate any critics in the audience and to be sure they like their seats. She’s immensely impressed with her own importance — it is she, after all, who mailed out the press invitations — and she credits herself with launching several show-biz careers, though the only example she can cite is Casimir, the French equivalent of Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

She’s deeply interested in whether the audience is enjoying itself: “Ben alors, c’est un spectacle comique — faut rigoler!” (Well, it’s a comedy show — you have to laugh!) She admits, however, that she herself doesn’t like the show much. At times, she’s pressed into other duties: to deliver a commercial for Plouf Detergent (in English), or to offer up her imitation of Dalida. That particular spectacle comique typically ended with the entire audience joining in a chorus of “Gigi l’Amoroso.”

Madame Sarfati, in an e-card from the Kakou website.
Many of Kakou’s punchlines have become catch-phrases.

In all of his routines, Kakou demonstrated a genuine affection for the eccentrics he portrayed. Madame Sarfati and the Attachée are quite lovable, actually, and though we do laugh at them, there’s nothing mean-spirited about Kakou’s humor. It’s probably not an accident that he gave that Marseillais tough his own name: without humor and art to uplift him, Elie Kakou might have wound up like that little guy, ferociously defending his turf in some dive bar. A truly sympathetic portrayal.

Kakou had just launched a movie career at the time of his death, and his command of English makes one wonder if he might not have been able to translate that career to British or American films, as well. Time wasn’t on his side, however, and he remains one of the biggest what-ifs of French popular culture. We’re lucky for what we got of him, I know, yet like any great entertainer, he left us wanting more.

NOTE: His French audiences never seemed to have any trouble understanding the English portions of his act; I’d be fascinated to know how Anglophone readers fare, should you watch any of the clips on his website.

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