The Arty Semite

Francis Veber: Laughter from Pain

By Benjamin Ivry

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Francis Veber (right) directs “Le Dîner de Cons.”

The veteran French comedy filmmaker Francis Veber, whose “Le Dîner de cons” was recently remade in Hollywood as “Dinner for Schmucks,” is a master of spoofing painful social anxiety and feelings of exclusion. His new memoir from Les éditions Robert Laffont, “Let This be our Secret,” addresses how Veber’s Jewish roots influenced his comedic skills.

Veber’s maternal grandmother, Marguerite Bernard, was the sister of the French Jewish humorist Tristan Bernard, who was deported to Drancy after the Nazis invaded France, only to be freed after powerful friends like Jean Cocteau objected. Veber’s father, Pierre-Gilles Veber, spent the war years hiding “at the back of our apartment, wearing his pajamas, desperately awaiting the Liberation.” Veber notes: “I was born in Neuilly to a Jewish father and Armenian mother; two genocides, two ensanguined wailing walls, all just to produce a comedian.”

Beaten by classmates who guessed that “this little boy named Veber with a somewhat suspect nose must be Jewish,” the writer and director recalls: “I had become the kike of all these bastards who regularly accorded me a personal pogrom.” Bitter domestic tensions extended from Veber’s parents to his maternal grandmother, who called Pierre-Gilles Veber a “filthy Jew,” since:

like many Russians, [she] didn’t like Jews and found her daughter’s marriage exceedingly hard to accept. One day when I criticized her antisemitism, she defended herself by using the most antisemitic argument I had ever heard: “In our hometown of Armavir,” she explained, “Jews were forbidden entry, so how could I have been antisemitic?”

Launching a career in comedy, first as a playwright and screenwriter, and later as director, Veber’s 1968 play “L’ Enlèvement” (The Kidnapping) offended the French Jewish aircraft industrialist Marcel Dassault (born Bloch), who sued Veber on the grounds that the play mocked the then-recent real-life kidnapping of his wife (a French judge later dismissed the case).

Discovering that in showbiz, “fraternity means vigilant loathing,” Veber recounts his triumphs and disasters with absorbing frankness, including his inadvertent bad timing of releasing a 1973 comedy, “The Suitcase” about an Israeli secret agent kidnapped by Arab spies, the same week in which the tragic Yom Kippur War broke out. Veber is frank about despising some younger Hollywood players, such as the twin screenwriters Daniel and Josh Goldin, whose “ironic little smiles gave me eczema.” “Let This be our Secret” artfully illustrates how producing comedy from historical and personal tragedy has made Veber one of France’s best-appreciated laugh-makers.

Watch part of a 2007 Shanghai stage production of Veber’s “Le Dîner de cons”:


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