Mohamed Hamidi’s La Vache is a road movie with a twist. The travelling companions are Algerian farmer Fatah (Fatsah Bouyahmed) and his prize cow Jacqueline who he dreams of entering in competition at Paris’ renowned Salon de l’Agriculture. The scenario is nothing new. It’s roughly the basis of the classic 1959 French film La Vache et le Prisonnier (The Cow and I) directed by Henri Verneuil with comic actor Fernandel in the lead role. Verneuil’s film was a huge hit and likewise Hamidi’s La Vache swept the board at the recent Comedy Film Festival in the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez. It’s easy to see the appeal of this gentle comedy with a funny, touching central performance from Bouyahmed. But Hamidi goes overboard with the syrupy sweetness and presents a vision of modern day France clearly at odds with reality. At a time when tensions with immigrant communities are running high, it’s slightly disingenuous to show a country where everyone – even custom’s officials and down-at-heel landed gentry – welcome the innocent Fatah with open arms. And Hamidi risks turning the sympathetic, naïve Fatah seen at the beginning of the film into a clownish, risible figure of fun by the closing credits.
Fatah lives a simple peasant life in a small village in Algeria with his wife and two children. His pride and joy is his Tarantaise cow Jacqueline who he tries to enter in competition every year at the prestigious Salon de l’Agriculture. His perserverance finally pays off and he is invited to take part. Funded by his village, he takes the boat to Marseille before setting off on the long trek north to the capital on foot. His journey is not without incident and along the way he meets up with his brother-in-law Hassan (the popular French comedian Jamel Debbouze) and is helped by bankrupt nobleman Philippe (Lambert Wilson). His adventures do not go unnoticed when a chance meeting with a film crew sees Fatah become an internet sensation much to the surprise of his friends and family back home.
La Vache is Hamidi’s second feature length film and he’s stayed on familiar territory with both his actors and the Algerian backdrop to the story. Both his directorial debut Né Quelque Part and La Vache demonstrate Hamidi’s keen eye for ferreting out the humour from the contradictions of life in modern day Algeria. While in France cell phones, television sets and computers are a daily necessity, back home Fatah’s village watch TV together on one set and telephone calls have to be organised in advance. Hamidi even leaves room for some biting social commentary. While Fatah’s male friends can openly flirt with French women via Skype, his wife is treated as her father’s property and on offer to another villager should Fatah fail to return home. On French soil, Fatah’s journey takes a more conventional, less satisfying turn with the high point his karaoke version of I will Survive in Arabic. Lambert’s role as the hard-up bourgeois Philippe comes across as contrived and implausible while Hassan is given too little too late to have much impact. And sadly Hamidi seems to embrace all too readily the benefits of instant fame on social media.