In France, Jerry Lewis draws lots of laughs and heaps of praise

Consider this scene: Jerry Lewis stands center stage in the Palais Royale's gilded salon. He squirms his face into one of its childish, spoiled-brat expressions - and the room filled with France's artistic best and brightest explodes with laughter.

Is it all a sick Gallic joke, uncultured Americans ask.

Not at all, the French answer. Culture Minister Jack Lang drapes an ornate medal representing France's highest cultural tribute, the commander of arts and letters, around the honored American guest's neck and says in full seriousness, ''Thank you for transforming the art of comedy.''

The ceremony a couple of months ago was only the beginning of France's gala celebration this year of Jerry Lewis. Last month, the American comedian was inducted into the fabled Legion of Honor, the country's highest award and a decoration usually reserved for military and political heroes.

Meanwhile, Lewis's first French film was just released. It is called ''To Catch a Cop,'' and everyone in the cast speaks French except Lewis, who plays an American policeman visiting his former French wife in Paris.

While critics called the film one of the comedian's lesser efforts, they said any Lewis performance was worth seeing. Predictably, the film has become one of the season's big hits.

At home, Lewis is certainly not such a star. While his films with Dean Martin in the 1940s and 1950s were popular, no film connoisseur has ever dared celebrate his comic artistry.

American critics even sneer at his recent solo efforts. The box office has also slowed down, and Lewis has become best known for his television fund raising on behalf of ailing children.

In contrast, Lewis's popularity has grown over the years in France. His Dean Martin films were not particularly successful. But his solo films have been critical and popular smashes. The l982 film ''Smorgasbord,'' for example, made little impact in America, but Parisians greeted it as a masterpiece.

One reason for Lewis's success across the Atlantic is the French appreciation for slapstick. Strange as it seems for a people steeped in the rational tradition of Rene Descartes, humor here is not appreciated for its wit, but for its inanity.

A Gallic Woody Allen does not exist. Instead, popular French movie comedians such as Jacques Tati and Louis de Funes have specialized in farce that needed little dialogue, and in Tati's case, none at all.

''Cultivated Americans are shamed by Lewis: They find him infantile,'' says the movie critic of the newspaper Liberation, Serge Dany. ''But we love Lewis's visual talent. His gags are our type of humor.''

Yet the French don't merely laugh at Lewis: They admire and analyze him as a master comedian comparable to a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. His lack of success with American critics doesn't faze them.

''American critics lack a comprehension of their own comics - they never understood the Marx brothers, Chaplin, or Keaton,'' comments Robert Benyaoun, former movie critic for the august daily Le Monde and author of a Jerry Lewis biography and a six-hour Jerry Lewis special for French television. ''Jerry Lewis is a star in the great tradition of American burlesque, and from the looks of things he could be the last of the line.''

Woody Allen is ''too verbal,'' he explains. Mel Brooks is merely ''a gagman.'' Only Lewis has the gift for making visual comedy that is also supreme social satire.

''Jerry Lewis is not a child,'' concludes Benyaoun. ''For us, he is a great comic of modern life. In films like 'Smorgasbord,' he makes fun of the entire human condition.''

Specifically, the French enjoy what they see as Lewis's profound criticism of American life. His misfortunes are the result of vicious capitalism, and only his childish humor protects him from the greed.

''We see America as an immature country, a circus,'' explains Liberation's Dany. ''In the French imagination, Lewis captures America, and if you Americans don't like the image he gives of your country, that's too bad.''

Lewis himself admits to a little bewilderment with all this attention. Dressed in a casual red shirt and black leather coat, he recently held a press conference at the Eiffel Tower that was attended by a throng of French journalists. Obsequious question followed question, praise was heaped upon praise.

''I am not a modest man, but to be compared in the same breath as Chaplin or Keaton is wrong,'' he says. ''When I hit a lady with some packages, the French say I have a complex on my mother. That's wrong.''

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