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France Flocks To Time-Travel Film of Grungy Knight, Squire

May 6, 1993

PARIS (AP) _ Let’s say a long-lost relative smelling like a stable comes over for dinner. He breaks the china, washes his hands in the toilet and tosses scraps of food on the floor to his belching servant.

Bad manners? Mais, non. Blockbuster.

″Les Visiteurs,″ a comedy about a medieval knight and his squire confronted by their descendants in the 20th century, is slaying audiences and box office records in France.

The resultant fad dubbed ″visitomania″ has spawned the latest slang, revived interest in the Middle Ages, and forced French intellectuals to explain why they like a film anyone can understand.

″Yes, I admit it, I laughed: without second thoughts, without remorse, without reserve,″ critic Alain Duault confessed in the news magazine L’Evenement de Jeudi. ″I laughed simply because it was funny.″

The movie has drawn 7 million viewers since its release in January. No French film has done nearly so well domestically since ″Trois Hommes et Un Couffin,″ which inspired Hollywood’s ″Three Men and a Baby.″ That film took two years to draw 10 million spectators.

Written by star Christian Clavier and director Jean-Marie Poire, ″Les Visiteurs″ turns the stock theme of time travel into a melange of slapstick, satire and wordplay poking fun at the Middle Ages and modern times.

The plot is sort of a reverse version of Mark Twain’s ″A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.″

It tells the tale of Godefroy de Montmirail, played by Jean Reno, a baron who kills his prospective father-in-law under the influence of a magic potion. His fiancee refuses to marry him, frustrating his greatest ambition - to produce an heir.

Godefroy and his crafty squire, Jacquouille, drink a potion intended to send them back to the moment before the murder and prevent it. Instead, they land in the littered, 20th-century forest that Godefroy’s domain has become.

After smashing a car with mace and broadsword, breathing polluted air, and being attacked by riot cops, Godefroy ends up in the care of his bubbleheaded great-great-etc. granddaughter and her dentist husband.

The visitors’ sole hope to return to a saner time: find the recipe for the time potion in his old castle. But the family chateau is now a hotel owned by Jacquouille’s nouveau riche great-great-etc. grandson.

″What a hellish world, where the peasants are lords and the lords peasants,″ Godefroy mourns.

The squire initially agrees to go back to the past but is seduced by the town tart. She introduces him to toothpaste, the French Revolution and the baguette - a long, thin loaf of bread which he eats plastic wrap and all.

Much of the humor stems from the ripe scent of the unwashed visitors. However, the film shows that odor is in the nose of the inhaler - the closed environment of a new car literally sickens men used to fresh mountain air.

Clavier plays both Jacquouille and his foppish descendant, Jacquard. Valerie Lemercier also has a double role as the modern countess and Godefroy’s betrothed.

Poire attributes much of the film’s success to its family orientation and a simple aim - to entertain. He spurns the psychodramas that dominate today’s French cinema.

″Les Visiteurs″ has already taken in about $18 million, double the production costs.

Hollywood is interested in producing an English-language remake. But Clavier and Poire say that will have to wait until they finish a sequel, probably in 1996.

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