SYNOPSIS: Although more or less adjacent, the villages of Rocamour and Miéjour are in a state of undeclared war. Fernandel plays the title character, a somewhat child-like innocent whom we first discover sitting in a tree, from which vantage point he delivers a delightful song to a traveling peddler (Mariotti).
COMMENT: Because this film was produced by a German company (Continental Films – the name has been removed from all current prints, including the DVD) and released by yet another German combine (Tobis Sound Films), its satire on French yokels has not been taken in the comic spirit which Fernandel and his fellow artists no doubt expected from their French countrymen and women. No doubt the satire hit right home, and in retrospect it would seem that is why the whole idea was so heartily endorsed by Berlin's stooge, Alfred Greven, and Fernandel so enthusiastically given carte blanche to make the movie. However, miscalculated in 1942 as the film was, there's no reason to hold it against Fernandel and company today. A telling satire it certainly is, but with even more certainty – if taken in the right spirit – it's very, very funny. In fact, I regard Simplet as simply one of the finest films ever made.
Fernandel himself has one of his best roles – if not his very best! A difficult part which he plays with charming insight. He acts as a catalyst for much of the fun, but by no means all of it. In fact, it could be argued that it's Henri Poupon's mayor who has the movie's main role. I could easily provide a valid synopsis to this effect: The mayor of a small country town in the north of France has to deal with a number of problems including the hostility of a neighboring village; the visit of a minister from the central government; a fête; the unveiling of a statue; the love affairs of the village beauty; the approaching death of a leading citizen; and the occasional forays of the village idiot. (Mind you, to describe Simplet as an idiot would be wrong. He is living in his own little world of trees and birds and fun. When he ruins the unveiling ceremony, he's genuinely surprised at the villagers' irate response. He expected cheers and laughter!)
All the actors are superb. Fernandel brilliantly plays the yokel as if he were a city man. It's all the other players who dress like yokels. And Fernandel talks to the birds as if it were the most natural thing to do in the world. It's all the other characters who get uptight. Furthermore he has little to do with some of the episodes. In the Cigale scenes, he's no more than a bystander at best. It's Cigale herself (a brilliant performance by Colette Fleuriot – who made only a handful of movies) around whom the action revolves in these riotous scenes. As for Poupon, he also has very few direct confrontations with Fernandel. And I believe it's partly because the director/comedian drops out of the action for many scenes that the movie as a whole is so enjoyable. It's Mariotti who actually opens the movie in the neighboring village and then comes upon Simplet, delightfully perched in a tree, as he approaches Rocamour. And when asked what he's doing in the tree, Fernandel voices the delightful "On m'appelle Simplet". And at this point, photographer Armand Thirard demonstrates his mastery of 3-D effects by panning his camera across the branches so that they seem to leap out into the room or auditorium. (I don't know how this 3-D effect was achieved. The later 3-D effects with the close-ups were filmed back in the studio. Thirard not only flooded the actors' faces with light but hit their heads from behind with an enormous amount of light as well. Don't ask me how this managed to produce 3-D. But it did!) Of course, Thirard brought off a marvelous 3-D effect in Les Diaboliques (1955) which mightily impressed everyone and was the talk of the town. But here he is, creating 3-D effects back in 1942. Funny thing, when CinemaScope came out in 1963, it was advertised as the process "you see without glasses." What no-one noticed was that you didn't need glasses to see 3-D. All a producer needed to do was to hire Armand Thirard!
Finally, the direction. As I've noted above, amazingly for a first-time director, Fernandel does not put a foot wrong. Some sources say that he was assisted in this initial endeavor by Carlo Rim. Be this as it may, the direction is not only extremely accomplished but delightfully stylish. Yet, surprisingly, Fernandel directed only two more movies: Adrien in 1943 and Adhémer ou le jouet de la fatalité (1951).