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Sick of Sex?

Mr. Bean's cure for summer smut.

Dorothy Woodend 31 Aug

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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A silent end to summer.

If you'd like to see a film with absolutely no sex at all, not even a hint of it, I offer you the Bean. I would venture to say that Mr. Bean, the creation of British comedian Rowan Atkinson, is almost entirely sexless. Thank God. The idea of sex and Mr. Bean inhabit different universes: he is a singularly unlovely creature, possessed of cavernous nostrils, long spidery limbs and an expression that veers between a sneer and pop-eyed terror. He's also a jerk, selfish, self-absorbed and asinine, and utterly British. And while I've never been a big fan of the character, he does have his moments.

Rowan Atkinson's facility with the English language, ably demonstrated in The Black Adder series, surpasses most living beings. It seems a loss that he should stop speaking and begin pantomiming. But there is a long tradition of silent film comics, beginning with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati that Mr. Atkinson draw's upon. Tati's film Mr. Hulot's Holiday (in which a Frenchman vacations in Brittany) is the most obvious reference in Mr. Bean's Holiday, but Chaplin's masterpiece The Kid has some influence as well.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bean's Holiday is nowhere near as great as these two earlier films. At best, it is a little light diversion, a safe zone where kids and grandparents can huddle in the dark, knowing they'll be safe from giant penis attacks. In this his second outing, the Bean man is softened a little, he doesn't seem like a mental patient who forgot to take his meds. This normalizing effect lessens his comic impact, but makes him a bit more palatable (read: human), which comes as something of a relief, and somewhat of a regret.

'Chaos in flood pants'

The film begins in the constant downpour of an English summer. Mr. Bean wins a trip to the beaches of Cannes in a church raffle, and before long he's zooming along in the Eurostar towards Paris, equipped with his brand new video camera. Like Tati's happily hapless creation, Mr. Bean loosed upon the world leaves a smoking trail of destruction in his wake. He is a force of chaos in flood pants, one flare of his epic nostril and you know that the forces of havoc loom.

It doesn't take long before the Englishman has destroyed a computer, tied-up Parisian traffic, and caused fisticuffs and ill will, but it isn't until he gets to the Gare du Nord, that the real trouble begins. At the train station, Mr. Bean manages to separate a young boy and his father by insisting that the man (actually a famous Russian film director) videotape Bean getting on the train to Cannes. The train zooms away, leaving the father stranded on the platform, and the little boy on board, alone and desperate. The Bean man feels responsible, because he is responsible, and he takes the kid under his tweedy arm. So begins a picaresque journey across the French countryside as the pair tries to get to Cannes and find the boy's father. Here the shades of Chaplin's little tramp and the kid (played by the adorable Jackie Coogan) are most apparent.

The cross-country slog of Bean and boy provides a wealth of set pieces, in which Rowan Atkinson can trot out his comedic stuff. The funniest of these involves the pair, having lost all their money, busking in a French marketplace. Before long, their paths convene with that of an obnoxious American film director (wonderfully played by Willem Dafoe) also on his way to the Cannes film festival to premiere his singularly awful art film. The last thing you'd expect in Mr. Bean movie is a trenchant take on the vanities of film auteurs at the Cannes film festival, but that's exactly what you get. All's well that ends on the sun-drenched beaches of Southern France, and even Bean, who rarely utters a word, bursts into glorious song, in the film's fitting climax.

The language of silence

"I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born," writes Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography. So, too, the Bean only emerged out of Rowan Atkinson when he stopped talking. In a recent interview with the Seattle Times, the actor said, "If I'm denied words, Mr. Bean's physicality and attitude to life is what I seem to acquire." It is fitting therefore that none of the characters in the film speak the same language, French, Russian or the guttural patois that comes out of Mr. Bean. Communication across cultures is one the ideas that keeps popping up throughout the film. Since physical comedy doesn't rely on language so much to tell a story, it lives (and dies) by the ability of the human body and face to convey an entirely unspoken dialect of humiliation, fear, mortal embarrassment, creeping chagrin, and unbridled joy.

Mr. Bean's Holiday is an enormous hit overseas (some $188 million), but not much in North America. Its profits are nowhere even close to the money that Superbad has raked in. The Bean can't win for losing apparently, as North Americans cling to stories of underdogs triumphant, and turn away from English weirdos. The latest incarnation of this notion, Balls of Fury, just crept into theatres on Wednesday, and will probably creep out again soon enough. The silly summer season is drawing to a close, the slate of fall film festivals loom, and soon enough there will be dark dramas aplenty.

Mr. Bean's Holiday isn't a bad way to end the summer. It's sweet, old-fashioned stuff, but it's kind of a relief after the summer of sex and explosions, which seem oddly similar after a while. Mr. Bean's Holiday is not a great film, it has its moments, but it offers an odd type of comfort. Grandmothers and grandkids can go together, and neither can be discomfited or bored. Maybe I'm just getting older, but I miss the days that everyone could go see the same film together, and not worry about having to hide under the seat from mortification at some point.

Pantomime is ancient, but does it still work with these modern kids and their newfangled Internet, video games, their gangsta rap? I recently witnessed my 11-year-old nephew's (complete with giant pants, and his badass backward baseball cap) introduction to the original Pink Panther. The tinkling laughter that came out of him, while he was watching Peter Sellers' pratfalls, was like hearing a rare bird in the forest.

It gladdened my heart just to hear it.

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