Western Film WTF: The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988)

It may surprise people to know that David Lynch once made a cowboy movie, but, knowing that, it will surprise nobody that the film is bizarre. The movie is short and a comedy, and it is indulgent in a sort of awkward, repetitive comedy Lynch that will be familiar to anyone watching season three of "Twin Peaks." Lynch likes to interrupt his scenes with a digression and then wait a little too long to get back to his point, to a degree that it's not clear if there was a point, or, I don't know, maybe the digression is the point.

The short film, made for a French series called "The French as Seen By...," starts with three cowboys puzzling over a Frenchman in their field. One of the cowboys, Harry Dean Stanton, keeps asking what the Frenchmen is. When the other cowboys, played by Lynch favorite Jack Nance and character actor Tracey Walter (who should be a Lynch regular, but for some reason isn't) discuss going out after the intruder, it turns out Stanton is deaf and the others aren't very bright, so they just keep discussing the same plan over and over again, growing more frustrated.

Lynch made this film shortly after "Blue Velvet," and it feels a little like "Blue Velvet" and a little like what would come after. The story is relatively straightforward, in that the cowboys befriend the Frenchman (Frederic Golchan), spend a night eating and watch impromptu entertainment with him. The film is satiric, sometimes in rather blunt ways: the cowboys figure out the stranger is French because he has french fries with him; they are, however, clueless about the fact that he also has baguettes, wine, smelly cheese, and snails.

The parody is often a lot more abstract, though. The cowboys will interrupt their dialogue with cowboyisms, shouting "Yippy kay yay" and the like at seemingly random times. They will also interrupt themselves to shoot birds and rattlesnakes. Transitions occur thanks to three singing cowgirls, who sometimes appear in the sky above the ranch, superimposed on the sky like giants.

And then the film gets to the evening's entertainment, and the film becomes entirely abstract, with images appearing on top of other images: Country music, horses that rear up suddenly, a rockabilly singer, and can-can dancers. All is shot shot outside in the dark, seemingly lit by spotlights, and it has the unreal and slightly menacing look of the scene in Blue Velvet in which Frank Booth takes Jeffrey Beaumont for a hellish nighttime car ride.

This would be the first film in which Lynch worked with Stanton, who was actually a veteran of a lot of anti-Westerns and seems right at home; Lynch would use Stanton again in at least three more films. Michael Horse also appears as an Indian in buckskins, at first seeming like a broad stereotype; it turns out he has shown up mostly because Tracey Walter owes him money, and he's too embarrassed to ask for it, and because he likes the Frenchman's suitcase. Lynch would do similar things with horse in the "Twin Peaks," giving him some stereotypical Indian qualities, but then piling eccentricities on top of them.

The film includes two visual jokes that I want to mention, because I like them. The first is at the end of the evening, when the cowboys are getting ready for bed. Stanton pairs off with a cowgirl, kissing her briefly. The Frenchman, however, pairs off with two cowgirls, and kisses them both, which isn't just how Lynch sees the French, but they way most Americans do.

In the morning, Stanton and the Frenchman have changed clothes, and the Frenchman speaks English while Stanton tries his hand at French, perhaps representing the newfound respect the two men have found for each other. It is short-lived, however, as Stanton cries out with disgust and flings away something he has found in the Frenchman's clothes: a snail.


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