Released in 1997, "The Bet" was co-directed and co-written by Didier Bourdon and Bernard Campan, two former members of the French comedic trio known as "Les Inconnus" ("the Unknowns"). And obviously, what first struck the attention of French spectators was the absence of the trio's third stooge, Pascal Légitimus.
The detail will probably go unnoticed by a foreign audience, while in France, the trio was so popular one couldn't imagine the three actors evolving separately in a movie, much more two out of three. The release of the film carried many interrogations and the absence of Légitimus left the fans wondering if "The Bet" would match the quality of "The Three Brothers", the film that starred the three actors (also co-directed by Bourdon and Campan) and the highest-grossing movie of 1995. "The Bet" met with a fair popular acclaim, was one the Top 10 movies in French theaters, and while not in the same league than its predecessor, it is still regarded today as one of the funniest comedies of the 90's.
And "The Bet"'s appeal relies on a simple comedic premise tackled effectively by the two leads: social opposition. Didier and Bernard (played by the namesake actors) couldn't have been more opposite, Didier is a wealthy pharmacist, married with Isabelle with an adoptive African girl, while Bernard is a teacher in a suburb and lives with Victoria. Apart from being married to two sisters and being smoke-addicts, they belong to separate worlds that inevitably impacted their political views. Didier is the typical bourgeois liberal reading the right-wing newspaper 'Le Figaro" and driving a black Mercedes, while Bernard is the left-wing teacher, driving a rusty car and reading "Liberation". Bourdon and Campan proves to be masters in the art of playing archetypal characters with self-derision, a talent that defined the popularity of "the Unknowns".
The opposition between the two men leads to a magnificently written sequence when they celebrate the birthday of Vincente, their father-in-law and another smoke-addict. Each of Didier and Bernard tries to outsmart the other, and the confrontation ends up on a simple bet, to stop smoking for fifteen days, until the next get-together occasion. The bet is the pay-off of the opposition cleverly established in the first part, offering the ultimate opportunity for the two rivals to compete with equal weapons. And the story chronicles the days following the bet, when everything starts wonderfully, before their lives inevitably turn sour when they realize their addiction was more serious than they thought maybe because cigarettes happened to be the only remedy against the bitter routine that poisoned their lives. And ironically, they're less trapped in their addiction, than the obsession of winning; basically, they're doing something good, but for the wrong reasons.
The risk of such a synopsis is to rapidly run out of ideas, and the pacing of "The Bet" slows down a little bit by insisting too much on the parallel disintegration of Didier and Bernard's lives: caught up in the same situations, compensating with food, TV, exercises etc, and finally, buying cigarettes at night and conveniently meeting in the same drugstores, a plot device that would have rung false if it wasn't saved by the gags, and that's how "The Bet" works, just when you think the film won't be the laugh riot you expect, one scene drives the narrative again. Indeed, when they meet two weeks after the bet, it's another starter for comedic situations, culminating with the the anonymous smokers sequence, when they join a sort of anti-smoking sect whose slogan (untranslatable in French) became a catchphrase in French pop culture and whose methods, if not to stop smoking, are certainly effective to generate the biggest laughs.
The therapy is the most memorable part of the film, and certainly most hilarious thanks to the scene-stealing performances of two other French comedians: Phillipe Chevalier as the guru and Régis Lespalès as Gilbert the champion and model of perseverance and abstinence (previous winner of the Golden Lung award). To give you an idea, one of the exercises consist on watching various slides in a projection room and reacting with 'good' or 'no good' whether cigarettes are present or not in the pictures, The therapy totally alienates Dider and Bourdon and causes them to leave their wives after a disastrous party. Gilbert welcomes them for the night, but the nightmarish interior of his house and the final punch line revealing the secret of his abstinence is hilarious beyond words, and sadly, the film doesn't get funnier after this episode.
After one hour, "The Bet" kind of loses its energy and seems like in a rush to close the two characters' arcs, Didier and Bourdon become grotesquely obese and end up in a thermal cure, but they're miraculously cured at the end, leading new lives far from the standards that defined their smoking-years. We never get to know what exactly makes their characters change, but this is a minor criticism since the film remains consistent nonetheless, and happens to make some interesting statements about the roots of addiction, especially when the remedy is worse than the evil. And it's an opportunity to rediscover the film with nostalgic eyes, remembering the era where smoking in public places wasn't a taboo. The film also contains some clever winks to "The Shining" and "Psycho" that I wouldn't dare to spoil.
Now, regarding the absence of Légitimus, it doesn't actually hurt the content of the film whose delight centers on the opposition between two men, while three would have been meaningless. Although I wish Legitimus had a much more interesting cameo, but his absence doesn't prevent the film from being a delightful little comedy, besides, his starring in their next film "The Three Kings" didn't make it more successful.
But to conclude on a positive note, if I had to describe "The Bet' with one word, and paraphrasing the therapists with their laconic voice in unison, I can only say : "Good".