Following his much mourned death, Charlie Chaplin found his first resting place in Switzerland to be only temporary. In 1978, two eastern European immigrants stole his remains for ransom. Unsurprisingly, this ill-conceived plot did not succeed. Taking the bare essentials from the case, Xavier Beauvois has shaped it into his own tale, turning the theft of Chaplin’s corpse into a Chaplin film. Overlong and sometimes overbearing, The Price of Fame is also funny, stylish and constantly entertaining.
In Beauvois’ retelling, the eastern Europeans have morphed into Belgian ex-con Eddy (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Algerian council worker Osman (Roschdy Zem). Recently released, Eddy lives in a caravan outside Osman’s ramshackle house where he cooks, reads and helps out with Osman’s young daughter, all alone while her mother’s in hospital. It’s the cost of this treatment and Eddy’s shady Christmas acquisition of a TV, allowing the makeshift family to watch coverage of Chaplin’s death that inspires Eddy to steal the corpse, a venture that is never likely to go well.
Beauvois, and writer Etienne Comar, use this incompetent duo to split Chaplin’s most famous creation in two. Eddy is the clown and Osman the rest of the tramp. Eddy’s a natural entertainer with little else going for him. His face rotates around hangdog expression and childish glee. He breaks off conversation to shuffle to songs on the radio and delights in amusing his friend’s daughter. Osman on the other hand is the classic hard luck story. He scrapes by on minimum wage, has a daughter who wants to go to university to be a vet but can’t because they have no money, has a wife laid off and racking up medical bills and has suffered persecution due to his Algerian heritage.
Several scenes are straight out a silent comedy. Eddy fixing the TV aerial or Eddy and Osman animatedly discussing their plan while the bombastic strings soar high. The homage is in plain sight but often very funny. Their hopeless attempts to extract payment are also well-scripted, both actors rising successfully to the pandemonium demanded. The Price of Fame puts them through their comic paces, a challenge both Poelvoorde and Zem rise to.
It’s Zem who has the harder time of it though. When his story is thrust to the front, the film shrinks back. His problems, ostensibly the reason they launch the hare-brained scheme in the first place, are not invested with enough depth. The odd scene of him being denied a bank loan or talking to hospital officials about costs is not enough to convey real emotion. There are other false notes along the way. Peter Coyote’s gung-ho personal assistant and Eddy’s circus clown sub-plot are as carefully introduced and indeed as welcome as a punch on the nose.
But given just has darn good he was, copying Chaplin was always going to be nigh on impossible. And while Beauvois falls short, he does so with style and no lack of entertainment.
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Writer: Etienne Comar
Stars: Isabelle Caillat, Dolores Chaplin, Peter Coyote