Prominently set during the German occupation of Paris, Claude Autant-Lara’s A Pig Across Paris is a comedic assault on the anxieties that darkened the City of Lights during WWII. Markets run out of groceries before day’s end, rationing has led to increased desperation, and the winding streets are littered with badgering cops and Nazis. That last detail provides the biggest dilemma for hapless plebeian Marcel Martin (Bourvil), a doltish former cabbie who now runs deliveries for a frugal provisions dealer on the black market. His newest errand is to discreetly drag approximately 220 pounds of pork distributed among four suitcases, much too heavy for one bumbling bootlegger to carry alone, across town to Montmartre. After launching into a paranoid, jealous tirade against his wife at a bistro, resulting in a shameful slap, Marcel recruits the help of a stranger at the bar, an ostensible vagabond named Grandgil (Jean Gabin, marvelously playing off his roguish looks) who claims to be a painter.
From there, A Pig Across Paris becomes an exaggerated epic of traditional buddy-comedy trappings wrapped in a picaresque farce. As Marcel and Grandgil scamper across the night, porcine contraband in tow, toward their destination (dodging pesky officers, suspicious bar owners, and frequently being trailed by hungry dogs), a caddish camaraderie grows. Despite Marcel’s hiring of Grandgil, the power structure is quickly reversed, with Grandgil proving himself an adventurer and cunning trickster, nimbly able to take advantage of broken systems whereas Marcel is complacent. Most inconveniently and helpfully, Grandgil instigates multiple tricky situations and then boisterously rationalizes his way out of every precarious predicament—whether rattling off a German poem or swiftly escaping from an officer with one punch—as Marcel nervously abides.
Although the odd-couple dynamic between Marcel and Grandgil is established immediately, it never exhausts itself, as Autant-Lara subtly uncovers new ways for the twosome’s interplay to reveal underlying themes of class and privilege; the filmmaker further enhances the friendship’s thematic implications with a third-act reveal that, like most of the film’s surprises, was always there to begin with, but not meant to be taken seriously at first. This lends a wry irony to the proceedings, as the backdrop of class division between the haves and the have nots is brought to the forefront, allowing Autant-Lara to use sharp humor—particularly with knives pointed toward bumbling rich folks—to alleviate the disparity and exasperation plaguing Paris.
In an early, tone-establishing scene, the bootleggers kill their stolen, squealing pig in a basement as Marcel loudly plays his accordion to avoid the ears of officers and informants. The animal scrambles about manically, while the camera holds mostly on Marcel as he performs a festive French tune on the convivial instrument. Once the pig is stabbed, the camera captures the cringing, bawdish facial expressions of everyone involved rather than focus directly on the grotesque situation at hand. Autant-Lara channels this idea of touting the humorous over the disturbing throughout the film, using a beacon of silliness to confront the bleak scenarios. Jacques Natteau’s simple cinematography also captures the cartoonishly treacherous atmosphere, beautifully framing the lamppost-dappled streets with small circular pockets of light, providing plenty of darkened spaces for Marcel and Grandgil to scurry through. Although the characters must remain in the shadows on their journey, A Pig Across Paris proves that perhaps the best way to elucidate on a country’s troubled, dark epoch is to use comedy and performance to provide the light.