In the remote French countryside, two old men - Le Gaude (Louis de Funès) and Le Bombé (Jean Carmet) - live out their solitary retirement contenting themselves with their friendship, their wine and daily doses of their irresistible cabbage soup. One night the pair have a farting contest that ends up attracting a UFO bearing a visitor from the faraway planet Oxo whom Le Gaude nicknames La Denrée (Jacques Villeret). Although the alien paralyzes a startled Bombé with a freeze ray he hits it off with affable Gaude who invites him to sample his famous soup. It goes down very well with the visitor from space. Thereafter La Denrée continues visiting Gaude for nightly helpings of soup that cause a sensation on Oxo. While Gaude keeps his extraterrestrial adventures a secret, poor old Bombé's claim to have seen a UFO makes him the laughing stock of the village.
Le soupe aux choux was the penultimate vehicle for French comedian Louis de Funès, star of the popular and long-running Le Gendarme de St. Tropez film series. Having scored one of his biggest hits with the science fiction parody Le Gendarmes et les extra-terrestres (1979), de Funès was very enthusiastic about this project which he co-adapted himself from the popular novel written by René Fallet. The high concept at work here fuses French provincial satire with out-of-this-world science fiction antics although most of the humour centres around the squabbles of two elderly men at odds with a rapidly modernizing world. While the film was a huge success in France more than a few critics lambasted its crass content which included a reliance on flatulence as a source of unending hilarity along with the spectacle of Jacques Villeret, future César award winning star of Le Dîner de cons (1998), as one of the silliest aliens in screen history making gobble-gobble noises dressed in what resembles a space age rubber chicken suit.
However, what critics overlooked was the dark and melancholy underlayer to the story satirising attitudes towards the elderly, the rapid modernization of rural France and dealing essentially with two sad, lonely old men that have resigned themselves to a quiet corner of the world where they can savour simple pleasures as they await death. That is until the arrival of a visitor from space injects a little hope into Gaude's life and eventually, for all the frantic farcical antics that ensue, enables both men to look at the stars with wonder. Imagine someone spliced a Twilight Zone episode into Last of the Summer Wine and you have a general sense of the tone only with a lot more flatulence and wine tasting. Aspects of Le soupe aux choux also evoke the folksy whimsy of Ray Bradbury particularly when the aliens reward Gaude by restoring his dead wife Francine to life as a beautiful young woman (Christine Dejoux). Unfortunately, Francine proves so enamoured with this fresh flush of youth she bullies Gaude into handing over his money then abandons him to have a good time with the handsome leader of a local biker gang in a sub-plot that treads a fine line between pathos and misogyny. Nevertheless Gaude nobly accepts he can never relive his youth and wishes Francine well, eventually parting with a sweet and genuinely touching gesture.
The film meanders through a lot of half-hearted pratfalls liable to test the patience of those less enamoured with French comedy but, while visibly frail (he succumbed to a heart attack only two years later), de Funès remains at his most manic and exuberant. A little late in the game the film springs a twist wherein the mayor brings a construction crew to bulldoze the old farm houses and make way for a lucrative amusement park. Suddenly Gaude and Bombé find themselves the last, unwanted relics of old style Frenchness in a rapidly modernizing France, pelted with peanuts by irate tourists. It is a deeply cynical view of contemporary French values but the concluding image of old France abandoning new France for a life amongst the stars conveys some pathos. Raymond Lefèvre's charming electro-pop theme music remains very famous in France and has been remixed several times.