In anticipation of our feature film, I thought I would select a short featuring “the wisdom of proletariat”, more or less (for reasons that should hopefully be apparent later on). I came up with one of the segments from Paris, Je T’aime – the final one, which is based in the 14th Arrondissement, and directed by Alexander Payne.
It is narrated by a middle-aged mail carrier in completely horrid Americanized French, in which she recounts her journey to Paris as a report to her French class. Nothing particularly interesting happens, she obsesses about a long-gone former boyfriend, and in the end she has an entirely insignificant epiphany about falling in love with Paris. Yet somehow, it allows us to connect with the person in a way we wouldn’t expect – sure, she’s not particularly successful or ambitious or intelligent, yet somehow her life seems just as important as a hero’s would have. An unexpected sympathy, I’d say.
Chance is a bit, shall we say, developmentally disabled. In fact, one might charitably apply the line from Top Secret: “Klaus is a moron who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” It turns out that Chance has been living with the old man since he was a young boy and has no memories of ever being outside of the house and its walled garden. He knows basically nothing but gardening and what he has seen on TV. And he is summarily kicked out of the house by the lawyer-types and into the cold harsh world of Washington, D.C.
Luckily for Chance, he is lightly struck by a chauffeured automobile before having to face the harsh realities of a night on the streets. The chauffeuree, Eve Rand, turns out to be the wife of a rich industrialist and she offers to bring him to her home for medical attention in what really, really, really looks to the viewer like some sort of scam until it turns out to be totally on the up-and-up. As through the rest of the movie, Chance simply lets the world happen to him, with apparently little understanding of what is going on, and he agrees to return to her house.
Her husband Benjamin turns out to be terminally ill. “Chance the gardener” is mistakenly heard as “Chauncey Gardner” and his extremely old (but well-maintained) suit is mistaken for something that has recently come back into fashion. The Rands mistake Chauncey for a businessman who has hit on hard times, and Benjamin misinterprets his simple and stilted talk about gardening as profound metaphor.
Chauncey becomes a fixture in the Rand household, and is even included in a meeting that Benjamin Rand has with the President of the United States, an old friend of his who has come for advice on the country’s current (poor) economic condition. “In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again,” says Chauncey, and the President understands that the economy moves in cycles and we merely have to wait out the bad times.
Well, due to his sage advice Chauncey becomes a bit of a sensation, even scoring an appearance on a political talk show where once again his tepid gardening talk wins everybody over.
It is important to emphasize that he has no clue what is going on.
Still, he has become such a close friend of the dying Benjamin that Eve’s husband explicitly condones her latent attraction to Chauncey and she ends up seducing him. At least, sort of.
In the end, nature takes its course and Benjamin dies. At his funeral, the President gives the eulogy. The pallbearers, meanwhile, carry his casket to an ominously secret-society-like tomb and discuss who they can possibly tag to replace the President (whose performance they appear to disapprove of) upon the next election. They settle on Chauncey.
In the meantime, Chauncey has grown bored with the funeral services and wandered off into the woods. He’s kind of not all there, you know. After checking on a few plants, he turns to a lake and simply walks right across it, apparently unaware that one simply does not do that. There’s no limit to what you can do if you don’t know what’s not possible.
I’m lukewarm about the movie. I thought Sellers did a fantastic job of selling the character and it’s quite comedic at times, but it comes off as a bit heavy-handed as far as the symbolism goes. Chauncey is the good, simple man while the businessmen are the evil, conniving, conspiratorial dunces too steeped in their own malevolence to see that their champion is a moron. Eh. If you’re going to moralize at me, I prefer a bit more nuance, I guess.