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03 December 2014

Coluche

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, popular stand-up comedian Coluche (1944-1986) was the number one film comedian of France. He was famous for his bawdy humour and ironic attitude towards politics and the establishment. In 1981 he himself was a candidate to become the French president. Coluche appeared in many popular French comedies, but it was his dramatic role in Tchao Pantin/So Long, Stooge (1983) that won him the César, the French Oscar. Only 41, he died in a motorcycle accident.

Coluche
French postcard , no. 957. Sent by mail in 1990. Photo: Patrick Davy.

Scenes of incest and cannibalism


Michel Gérard Joseph Colucci was born in 1944, several weeks after the liberation, in a hospital in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, France. His mother Simone Bouyer worked as a florist. His father Honorio Colucci, who originally came from Lazio in Italy, was a painter and decorator. His father died in 1947 at the age of 31 from polio. This left his wife to bring up alone his two children on a meagre salary.

Coluche showed little promise at school and afterwards had various small jobs that he did not stay in for long. He joined the infantry but was imprisoned for insubordination. After returning to civilian life, he worked for a while in his mother’s flower shop.

At the end of the sixties he tried his luck as a singer in cafes. But this was unsuccessful so he turned to comedy. In 1968 he met Romain Bouteille with whom he founded the Café de la Gare, a theatre where Gérard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere, Thierry Lhermitte, Miou-Miou, Josiane Balasko and lots of other French comedians made their debut.

Colucci adopted ‘Coluche’ as a stage name at 26. He became a popular success, but alcohol problems forced him to leave the group. Afterwards he founded another group: Le vrai chic parisien and it was at this time that he met his future wife Véronique Kantor. They married in 1975 and had two sons. But again his behaviour and addictions forced him to leave this group and launch his solo career.

During the 1970s, Coluche became known for his irreverent attitude towards politics and the establishment, and he incorporated this into much of his material. He was sacked by two radio stations for vulgarity.

Coluche was also one of the first major comedians to regularly use profanities as a source of humour on French television. In 1973, he started his first one-man-show, Mes adieux au music-hall. His first sketch C'est l'histoire d'un mec dealt humorously with the difficulties of telling a funny story. For his one-man shows, he began to dress in his well-known outfit: blue striped overalls, a bright yellow T-shirt, yellow boots and round glasses.

In 1973, he also played in the classic art house film Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973), produced on a low budget with no intelligible dialog. Themroc tells the story of a French blue collar worker (Michel Piccoli) who rebels against modern society, reverting into an urban caveman. The film's scenes of incest and cannibalism caused controversy. Coluche played Piccolo’s neighbour.

He had a huge international film hit, when he starred opposite comic giant Louis de Funès in the comedy L'aile ou la cuisse/The Wing or the Thigh (Claude Zidi, 1976). He plays the son of Charles Duchemin (Louis de Funès) the editor of an internationally known restaurant guide, who decides to retire as a critic and trains his son to continue the family business.

Coluche even tried his hand at film directing, although the satire Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine/ You Won't Have Alsace-Lorraine (Coluche, 1977) was to be the only film he would direct. In 1978, he won the Prix National des Euphémismes de Charente-Maritime (National Prize for Understatements of Charente-Maritime), at the third try.

By the end of the decade, Coluche had become a film star in his own right and his subsequent film roles were better tailored to his style of comedy.

Coluche
French postcard by Editions Humour à la Carte, Paris, no. ST-102. Photo: Alain Bizos / VU.

Coluche
French postcard by Editions Humour à la Carte, Paris, no. ST-101. Photo: Alain Bizos / VU.

The only candidate who had no reason to lie


On 30 October 1980, Coluche organised a press-conference in the theatre where he was performing a one-man show. It was there that he announced his candidacy for the French presidential elections in 1981. At first he was not taken seriously until the day the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, published a poll on 14 December 1980, crediting Coluche with 16% of voting intentions.

He described himself as the only candidate who had no reason to lie. He had socialist ideas, and was therefore a threat to Socialist presidential candidate François Mitterrand. After criticism from rivals and death threats, Coluche announced to abandon his candidacy in April 1981. Mitterrand eventually would defeat incumbent President Giscard d'Estaing and become president.

In 1981, Coluche also divorced his wife Véronique. The years that followed would be marked by emotional upset and tragedy. In 1982, Coluche eloped with Patrick Dewaere's wife Elsa, prompting his friend to commit suicide with a rifle that Coluche had recently given him. The incident brought Coluche a deep depression which he nurtured with alcohol and drugs.

At the times, he appeared in several popular film comedies, including Inspecteur la Bavure/Inspector Blunder (Claude Zidi, 1980) with Gérard Depardieu, Le maître d'école/The school master (Claude Berri, 1981), Banzaï (Claude Zidi, 1983) and – ironically - La Femme de mon pote/My Best Friend's Girl (Bertrand Blier, 1983) starring Isabelle Huppert.

In 1984 he was awarded the César Award for Best Actor for his role in the film Tchao Pantin/So Long, Stooge (Claude Berri, 1983). He portrayed an alcoholic gas jockey who befriends a troubled young drug dealer and works to solve his murder. It was one if his few dramatic roles.

By this time, Coluche was closely involved with humanitarian causes, including support for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia. In September 1985, he created Les Restos du Cœur: a charity for people in need with 40,000 volunteers in almost 2,500 Restos, which welcome 600,000 beneficiaries a day. This charity was launched by Coluche when he made a speech on the radio station Europe 1. This speech is very famous and begins with the words 'I have a little idea..'.

The charity collects food, money and clothes for the needy and the homeless. Each year, a fund-raising concert series is presented by various singers and celebrities, collectively known as 'les Enfoirés' (the assholes).

Coluche also loved fast bikes. He even earned a record in the Guinness book of records in September 1985, on the race circuit of Nardo (Italy), when he reached the speed of 252.087 km/h on a 750cc motorbike.

His final film was the French-Italian comedy Le fou de guerre/Madman at War (Dino Risi, 1985), which was entered into the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

In June 1986, Coluche suddenly died when his motorcycle (he was not speeding) crashed into a truck on a road in the commune of Opio in south-eastern France. He was 41. This event provoked national grief and inspired the album Putain de camion (Fuckin' truck) by close friend Renaud. Some conspiracy theories have since surfaced, mainly in the book Coluche, l'accident: contre-enquête, alleging that Coluche may have been murdered.

In 2008, the film Coluche, l'histoire d'un mec/Coluche: the story of a guy (Antoine de Caunes, 2008) was released. It relates the events surrounding Coluche's bid for the French presidency in 1981. François-Xavier Demaison plays Coluche. James Travers at French Film Guide: “a modest tribute to an exceptional talent”.

Coluche
Swiss postcard by Musée d'Elysée, Lausanne, no. 55599. Photo: Laurence Sudre / News Productions.

Coluche
French postcard by La Poste / Restaurants du Coeur, Paris. Photo: Gaston / J. Quirno - Sygma / T. Frank - Sygma. Sent by mail in 2001.

Sources: James Travers (French Film Site), Sandra Brennan (AllMovie), Wikipedia (English and Dutch) and IMDb.

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