Onésime vs. Onésime (1912) A Silent Film Review

A violent and surreal (and FUNNY) comedy from director Jean Durand. Forgotten French comedian Ernest Bourbon stars as Onésime, who has managed to create an exact double of himself. When the double’s antics prove troublesome, Onésime decides that drastic measures are called for.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

This is my contribution to Great VillainBlogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows & Satin. Be sure to check out the other villainous posts!

Dismembering for fun and profit

Jean Durand is one of my favorite discoveries of the past year. Sadly forgotten, he was one of the wildest and wackiest directors of pre-WWI French cinema. I have already covered one of his westerns (imagine Coyote vs. Roadrunner with real blood and guts) and a leopard-based melodrama (starring Durand’s future wife, the glorious lion-tamer Berthe Dagmar) but this is the first time I will be reviewing one of his comedies.

Ernest Bourbon in character.
Ernest Bourbon in character.

Indeed, comedy was Durand’s specialty and his most popular series revolved around the surreal misadventures of Onésime, played by Ernest Bourbon. Onésime was always getting himself into one scrape or another but usual found some clever or violent way out. (In one case, Onésime actually tampers with time itself.) Durand kept a menagerie of both exotic and domestic animals on hand for use in his pictures but this time around, Onésime’s great antagonist is himself.

He split because he could.
He split because he could.

This is a spoof of the predicament of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but, unlike many other Jekyll and Hyde tales, the how of the split is completely ignored in favor of exploring the mischief the “bad” side of Onésime gets into. The film simply begins with Bourbon being divided, thanks to the magic of split screen. Durand uses clever cuts and doubles to amplify the illusion of two Onésimes and many of his tricks remain impressive, though his film grammar is a touch old-fashioned.

The double proves to be a little too French.
The double proves to be a little too French.

Onésime pays a call on his girlfriend but his double emerges and sneaks into the kitchen, where he occupies himself by attempting to pinch the maid. The double then flees back into Onésime, leaving him to take the blame. Later, Onésime is tired and wants to go to bed but the double emerges again and runs away to a restaurant. As Onésime lectures his wayward doppelganger, the double steals the silverware right off the table.

The great silverware heist of 1912.
The great silverware heist of 1912.

Enough is enough! Onésime must find a way to rid himself of the troublesome double and it seems that his best option is… murder. (Spoiler) Onésime chases his double, corners him and then dismembers him, twirling the limbs over his head with glee. Told you it was violent.

This film’s concept reminds me of one of my favorite lame jokes. (I warn you, I am a huge fan of those long and convoluted jokes that end in a terrible pun. Stop reading now if you hate groaning.)

The perils of cloning.
The perils of cloning.

A guy gets himself cloned but is horrified to find that the clone is coarse and vulgar, given to cursing and other unpleasant behavior. Worse, the guy gets blamed for all of the clone’s swearing and vulgarity. His reputation in tatters, the guy asks the cloning lab what he can do to solve the problem. The lab people tell him to just kill the clone, it’s perfectly legal.

So the guy gets a gun and chases the clone up a mountain. Before he can shoot, the clone slips and falls to his death. Local prosecutors try to charge the guy with murder but it is indeed legal to kill one’s clone so in the end, all they can get him on is making an obscene clone fall.

Wah-wah-waaaaaa! Thank you, I’ll be here all night!

Will the real villain please stand up.
Will the real villain please stand up?

What is particularly interesting about Onésime vs. Onésime is that the viewer cannot be sure which way is up. Is Onésime the villain or is his duplicate? Or are they both? The duplicate is a rascal, to be sure, but does he do anything to warrant his brutal fate? But is he really just a part of Onésime anyway, so it’s okay? There’s an awful lot of conversation to be had about this little one-reeler. I’m sure Durand did not intend this but that makes it even more interesting.

The double makes his escape.
The double makes his escape.

Durand is sometimes compared to Mack Sennett but I think that’s just because both men made raucous slapstick around the same time. Durand’s work, though, takes that extra step into oddball territory and creates a topsy-turvy world where nothing in “normal” society can be relied upon. Onésime’s double is ruining his social life but who can he call for help? In the end, he must take matters into his own hands.

Durand was not the only director of surreal comedies but his pictures have a distinct snap and sparkle to them. The humor depends on wild overreaction, with characters killing one another and even altering the laws of time and space in order to deal with comparatively minor problems.

Getting blamed for your double's mischief is no picnic.
Getting blamed for your double’s mischief is no picnic.

For his part, Bourbon is as charming as ever in his role as Onésime. While he certainly mugs, he does so with a bit more finesse than his contemporaries. Bourbon’s double performance is interesting because, counter to what is normally expected, the “evil” duplicate is affable and bubbly while the real Onésime is scowling and murderous. Uh oh, Durand has me questioning which one is really the bad one again.

Sadly, Bourbon’s career did not survive the First World War. He served in the French armed forces but upon his return, France had lost its taste for Onésime. He made his last picture in 1918. Durand did not fare much better. He directed a series of box office failures and the end of his career coincided with the coming of sound. Both men have been neglected for decades but it’s time for their particular brand of madness to charm the public once again.

The "hero" prepares to put an end to his problems.
The “hero” prepares to put an end to his problems.

Onésime vs. Onésime is an addictively anarchic take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It makes clever use of its special effects and its ending is still shocking today. I highly recommend diving into the work of Durand. I guarantee you will be entertained, charmed and maybe even a little flabbergasted.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

Where can I see it?

This short, along with numerous other Onésime films, has been released on DVD as part of the Gaumont Treasures Volume Two box set from Kino Lorber.

8 Replies to “Onésime vs. Onésime (1912) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I’ll have to be on the lookout for this one. Sounds like something I might appreciate with my sometimes bizarre tastes.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  2. This sounds TERRIFIC! I love films that do what they want and don’t care about conventions. This sounds like one of those films.

    Very sad to read that both the director and the actor fell out of favour after WWI. Based on your post, I agree that it’s time these two are more widely appreciated.

    Thank you for joining the Villain blogathon, and for bringing Onésime x2 with you!

  3. Evil clones have more fun, and the good one is a nasty wet rag, that’s a fun twist. Sounds like absurd fun and good material for a remake. Thanks for being part of the blogathon!

Comments are closed.