If I hadn’t known going in that this comedy short was by famous director David Lynch, I’d say The Cowboy and the Frenchman is one of the dumbest, most confusing of the short films I’ve seen since I started writing these essays.
Hell, I’ll say it anyway. Regardless of it being by David Lynch, The Cowboy and the Frenchman is dumb, it’s only very mildly amusing in parts, and a lot of it’s pretentiously intentionally incomprehensible.
The histrionics of the overacting, and a lot of the material the actors have to work with (such as the recurring gag that one of the characters is hard of hearing and must constantly demand the others repeat themselves) is about on the level of the worst of the most amateurish sketch comedy, clearly intentionally, as some kind of satirical or campy thing. The cast, led by the generally very good Harry Dean Stanton, is certainly not genuinely this bad.
The story, such as it is, starts with three cowboys hanging out chatting along a fence. They see a mysterious figure stumbling toward them. When they go to investigate, they discover a strange well-dressed man wearing a beret and chattering in some language (French) that they don’t understand.
They snatch the bag he’s carrying and rifle through it. They reach in and pull out items one by one. In surreal fashion they pull out way more stuff than could actually ever fit in there. Every item is comically, stereotypically French—bottles of wine, a long loaf of french bread, a plate of escargot, etc.
One of the few laughs I got out of the film is this scene, because the cowboys are too clueless to associate any of this stuff with being French. Until they pull out a plate of french fries, and it dawns on them. “Ohhhh, french fries! Well then I bet this feller’s French!”
Soon it deteriorates into surreal scenes with singing and dancing and the introduction of various other characters, and I have no idea what any of it’s supposed to mean. (Probably nothing.) It would help if the Frenchman’s lines were subtitled, but he’s not. So unless you speak French, all those lines are lost.
The story behind this film is that for an anniversary celebration, Le Figaro commissioned five famous directors to make short films on the theme The French as Seen By…. This was Lynch’s contribution. So presumably part of the humor is that Americans are such rubes that they associate the French with the silliest of stereotypes (to the extent that they’re aware of them at all).
Maybe The Cowboy and the Frenchman is a comic masterpiece by a genius filmmaker, but if so it’s the kind of comic masterpiece that’s way over my head. To me it’s 2% genius and 98% just plain dumb.