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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 05, 1996


Anne Fontaine
Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc;
Thierry Lhermitte
nothing offensive. In French with subtitles

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JOINING THE existentially comic ranks of such work drones as Bartleby the Scrivener and Gregor Samsa is Augustin Dos Santos. In "Augustin," a French movie written and directed by Anne Fontaine, he's a gangly, nervous, stuttering insurance clerk of Portuguese descent, who lives his drab life with maddening precision but dreams of being a great star of action films.

Unfortunately, Augustin must satisfy himself with assorted bit parts in commercials and other minor projects. One of his forthcoming roles, for instance, is to host an information film about myxomatosis—a rabbit disease.

When we meet Augustin, he's having an interview with a casting agent. While he talks about his rather spotty qualifications, his words race and smash into each other, as if trying to catch up with his racing thoughts. His voice stutters and trembles. His head vibrates. His hands flutter around his face like terrified moths.

Asked to display his professional photographs of himself, he spreads out an assortment of miniature passport pictures before the astounded casting agent. But Augustin's perseverance overcomes his obvious shortcomings. There's something about him that makes the agent (like everyone else who comes into contact with Augustin) sit back and watch with baffled wonder.

In this almost-documentary comedy, we see Augustin in other walks of his oddball life. In the office, where he processes claims for brain-dead victims, he's a by-the-numbers robot who snitches on fellow employees, enjoys his dull work and closes his files every day after precisely three hours and 38 minutes. That mechanical, literal-minded behavior extends to his acting. Informed that one of the available roles is for a hotel flunky, Augustin persuades the manager of a fancy hotel to allow him to spend a day as a servant there.

In one funny scene, he brings in breakfast to an English guest, who tips him a 100-franc note. At first, Augustin refuses. But when the guest insists he keep the money, Augustin feels compelled to provide him with appreciative small talk—in halting, stuttery English. "Well, I hope you-you-you-you-you will have a good day today," he declares. "Because yesterday it was not very well—its weather. I don't know, uh, how to tell you but the weather was very, uh, rain rain rain rain. And tomorrow, it will be very, uuum, cold. But today, it's not too bad. It's between—I'm sorry—rain and cold."

And so on. At 61 minutes, "Augustin," which has no particular plot to speak of, feels more like an extended character riff than a movie. The filmmaker created the movie for her brother, Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc, whose deadpan Augustin suggests a combination of Jerry Lewis and the French comic Jacques Tati. Many of the scenes are improvised, and most of the actors (apart from Sibertin-Blanc and Thierry Lhermitte, a well-known French actor who plays himself) are amateurs. What's great about the movie is its own, precious oddness. Like the title character, you won't find anything else like this.

"Augustin" is preceded by "Omnibus," an eight-minute French comedy, in which a highly nervous traveler late for his job persuades the conductor of a high-speed commuter train to make an unscheduled stop. The movie, which was awarded the 1992 Oscar for Best Live Action Short, is amusing but rather slight. It works as a precursor to the main attraction, but never comes close to eclipsing it.

AUGUSTIN (Unrated) — Contains nothing offensive. In French with subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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