Speaking French With a Jewish Accent

Comedic star Vincent Elbaz has a plum role in a cult comedy series and sex-symbol status in all the ladies' magazines. He also is flying the flag for French Jewish actors everywhere.

The French media is wild for Vincent Elbaz, and it's easy to see why.

The Jewish actor, who bears no relation to Alber Elbaz of Lanvin fame, is tall and has a hearty shock of brown hair. He is oddly handsome, with small, dark eyes, an aquiline nose and high, wide cheekbones. But it's not his good looks that earned him the title of "charmant," or charmer, with so many French women. It's his wide smile and his sense of humor, attributes that have cemented his status as a sex symbol in women's magazines across the country.

He has become a regular fixture in the media this year thanks to his role in a wildly popular French film, "La verite si je mens! 3" ("Would I Lie to You! 3"). This third installment in the French cult comedy series, "Would I Lie to You!" is now in Israeli theaters.

The movie deals with Arab-Jewish relations in Le Sentier, the wholesale garment district in Paris, has a large Jewish presence. The first film in the series was released in 1997 and was set in the heart of Paris. The second did too.

This time around, however, the action has moved to the suburbs, where La Sentier Jews could be found in bygone days.

The third installment brings the cult-classic gang together once more. Jose Garcia, Richard Anconina, Bruno Solo and Gilbert Melki return to their roles as friends and business partners. Elbaz reprises the role of the handsome and irreverent Dov as he and his friends deal with the changes taking place in La Sentier, which now has a population of Chinese immigrants.

Elbaz, 41, has lent his talents to more than 30 films in the past 20 years. This is his second run as Dov; in the trio's second installment, French-Moroccan comedian Gad Elmaleh was brought in. This time around, he's delighted to be back.

The comedy hits upon well-worn comedic buttons and draws laughs by capitalizing on cliche-filled humor about French Jews. A macho, testosterone-fueled pack of Jewish guys, Star of David pendants hanging over their chest hair, outwits income-tax clerks, Chinese businessmen and even their own wives in scenes packed with Klezmer music, ululations and pots of couscous.

Despite the caricatures – or perhaps because of them – this trilogy is second in importance only to the 1973 comedy "The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob" when it comes to Jewish culture and cinema and France.

And the people just can't get enough of it. In France alone, more than 4.5 million have bought tickets to "Would I Live to You! 3." Four million people saw the second film, and 8 million watched the first.

Its true that the film plays on some inflated cliches about Jews – for example, the Jew as a loud textile merchant of North African extraction, he says. But they vote with their feet just because its a good comedy. Besides, the portrayal of the Jew in French comedy has developed. Its no longer about Ashkenazi Hasidim from Le Marais, who were a tiny minority of the Jewish population in France. The characteristics of the North African Jews, as a community, are part of the fabric of Paris, and its only right that they should be translated into comedy.

Elbaz's resume is packed with roles where he played a Sephardi Jew. Not all are comedies. In the thriller "Five Brothers," he plays the youngest of the Hayoun clan, all of whom help him out when he runs into some trouble on the gray market. In this picture, the Jewish family is a cohesive unit, and sticks together.

However, in the film "The Assault," he plays the role of Thierry, an elite police officer who is called upon when an Air France plane is hijacked by four heavily armed men of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group. That film, directed by Julien Leclercq, is based on the true story of a hijacking on Christmas Eve 1994, in which the flight was successfully saved.

Descent from a long line of North African Jews

Elbaz was born in 1971 to a Jewish family of Algerian extraction who lived near Paris. After high school, he enrolled in acting school in Paris. He has never looked back.

Im a French Parisian who comes from a home with North African roots and a Jewish-Arabic culture that has become part of my identity. As a child I had a secular education, and I loved literature and cinema the most. To the best of my knowledge, my family descends from a long line of Jews who lived in North Africa for 2,000 years. In 1948, my family arrived in France because of the intolerable situation in Algiers."

Israel, he says, was always close to his heart.

As a French Jew, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was part of the landscape of my childhood, Elbaz says. I remember watching the news during the first Intifada and the first Lebanon war. In our home we always cared about Israel. It always came up in conversation at meals and at family gatherings. But I discovered Israel at a relatively late age, when friends invited me there. Since then, Ive felt a strong connection with it. As far as the conflict goes, I hold the position of the French left – Im in favor of the Palestinian peoples right to a state while preserving Israels security. I dont defend Israel automatically, as many people in the community do."

And there is one Israeli export that he is particularly fond of.

"I admire Israeli cinema very much," Elbaz says. And while some Israelis bemoan their local film industry for shaping their films for international audiences rather than local ones, Elbaz sees no issue.

"Israeli cinema is faithful to the situation in Israel to the same extent that French cinema can talk about France. Cinematic depiction does not have to reflect reality. It is faithful to a single story – the screenplay. For example, Amos Gitais film 'Kadosh' isnt just a glimpse into the Haredi world. Its also the story of a family. So is Eytan Foxs film 'Walk On Water.'

If he were given the chance to work with Israeli directors, Elbaz says, he would jump at it.

In the meantime, he is keeping himself plenty busy. He recently appeared in two Paris theater productions directed by actor and director John Malkovich, who often work in the City of Lights. And he is about to wrap a new television series slated for TF1, a major French television channel, in which he plays a gifted police officer who fights international crime.

That series is directed by Luc Besson, the prominent French director of action films. And Elbaz's calendar is not likely to clear anytime soon.

The series, which will occupy a major prime-time slot, is good news for Elbaz. A second season is already being discussed.

Vincent Elbaz
Screen shot