Why Christian Clavier is still one of France's favourite comic actors

We take a look at the Paris-born actor's illustrious career, the typical characters he played and how he understands French humour

Christian Clavier, here attending a premiere, has been a mainstay of French comedy for over 30 years
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Cocorico, the latest comedy starring Christian Clavier, is currently the second most-viewed film in France this year, with almost two million tickets sold.

Clavier plays Frédéric Bouvier-Sauvage, a man from an aristocratic French family going back to Louis VI, who is flabbergasted by the results of a DNA test that his soon-to-be-married daughter organises for her and her fiancé’s family.

The character – a wealthy, conservative white man who is forced to reconsider preconceived notions of race, class and intelligence – is a familiar one for Clavier. Other ‘bourgeois, white man’ roles include in the wildly successful Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu?, released in 2011, in which he played a conservative father to four daughters who all marry people of different origins and religious beliefs. More than 12.3 million people went to see it in cinemas.

Box office draw

However, Clavier has captivated French audiences in plenty of other roles too. Indeed, he is the only actor to have starred in four movies that sold more than 10 million tickets in France: as well as Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu?, these include Les Bronzés, Les Visiteurs and an Astérix adaptation. Only 32 films in France since the 1940s can boast such viewer figures.

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Hinting at the reasons for his huge success, Clavier told the TF1 show Sept à Huit in 2014: “I am never condescending towards these characters, because they resemble us a lot. 

“They get caught up in situations that make them petty, mean, bad, selfish and oafish. I hope I am not the same as them but I know that at times I can be.

“I show, with sympathy and tenderness, the worst flaws of my characters,” he concluded. “They are a representation of the French people.”

In many ways, Clavier is a successor to French comic actors such as Bourvil, Michel Serrault and, most notably, Louis de Funès, though he cites Blake Edwards, W. C. Fields and Peter Sellers as three of his main sources of inspiration.

Wealthy family

Clavier was born on May 6, 1952, in Paris, the son of a housewife and a doctor. His childhood was spent in Neuilly (Hauts-de-Seine), a wealthy suburb west of Paris.

He studied at Sciences Po for six months – in the same year as former president François Hollande – before giving up to try his hand at theatre and comedy.

He became a student of French actress Tsilla Chelton and learned the basics of theatre – from Shakespeare and Molière to Bossuet and Proust.

Clavier is famous for being a member of the comedy theatre troupe Splendid, named after the venue where it performed, along with friends he met in primary and high school.

Other members included Gérard Jugnot, Thierry Lhermitte, Michel Blanc, Josiane Balasko, Bruno Moynot and Marie-Anne Chazel, who was his girlfriend from 1976 to 2001 and with whom he had a daughter in 1983. The troupe was given an honorary César in 2021.

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Together, they starred in Les Bronzés, a series of comedy films chronicling the adventures of a group of friends in a resort in Ivory Coast, followed by a French ski resort and finally, a hotel in Sardinia.

They also acted in Le père Noël est une ordure (which translates as Santa Claus is a Stinker), released in 1982, an adaptation of a play that Splendid created.

Cult classics

Panned by critics upon their release, the films still managed to attract several million people to cinemas and became cult classics in France. 

“We were united by the same conception of humour and movies,” Clavier said of his fellow Splendid members. “You have the family you are born with and the one you choose. Splendid has been a real blessing.” 

Clavier then went on to pursue a solo career, acting in plays and TV films until he became a household name in 1993 with Les Visiteurs.

In it, he played Jacquouille la Fripouille, the idiotic but faithful squire of Count Godefroy de Montmirail (played by Jean Reno), who, alongside his master, is transported from the Middle Ages to modern times – with hilarious results.

The film brought in nearly 14 million people to cinemas, making it the 15th most successful movie at the French box office and generating two sequels and an American remake.

Jacquouille’s cry of "Okkkayyy!!" became a popular exclamation after the movie's success, and many of his punchlines have also become part of French popular culture.

French humour

“French wittiness is about looking at tragedies with a form of derision, sometimes as a jibe, and humour,” he said in an interview to TV channel i24news in 2022, when asked what defines French humour.

“It is part of French people’s nature and history. When you consider that Louis XIV invented sycophants, the humour of Molière, the comedic contempt towards people in power, becomes absolutely captivating,” he added.

Clavier was also chosen to play Astérix in Astérix et Obélix contre César in 1999 and its sequel Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre in 2002, two other huge box office successes.

The latter sold nearly 15 million tickets, making it France’s eighth highest grossing film of all time.

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Clavier briefly tried to break out of comedy and played several dramatic roles in TV adaptations such as Thénardier in Les Misérables, and Napoleon.

Branching out

He also explored other jobs in the film industry, dabbling in screenwriting, producing, and even directing once. 

He was awarded the Legion of Honour in 2008.

However, he will always be considered a comedic actor first and foremost, as evidenced by the millions of TV viewers who watch reruns of his most famous films.

He left France and moved to London in the 2010s, wounded by critics denouncing his ties with then-president Nicolas Sarkozy and Parisian intellectuals, and has been living in Belgium since 2018.

Patrice Leconte, the director of the three Les Bronzés, has already teased the possibility of a fourth film, so watch this space. Clavier might not be resident in France, but his reputation here shows no sign of fading.

What they have said about him

“From five to 90 years old, everybody knows Christian Clavier.” 

Thierry Chèze, French movie critic 

Santa Claus is a Stinker [in which Clavier played a depressed transvestite] has gained mythical status, imprinting itself in the memory of a whole generation.” 

Yves Delhommeau, director of Musée Grévin (France’s version of Madame Tussauds), which made waxworks of every character in a section of the museum

“With [the character of] Jacquouille in Les Visiteurs, Mr Clavier went all out and became the Louis de Funès of the 1990s. He will go on and on and on thereafter in other roles, becoming a sort of a pastiche. Jacquouille created a monster.” 

Thomas Croisière, French movie critic