Eric Lartigau’s La Famille Bélier has barely opened in cinemas in France and is already being hailed as THE French film of 2014. This is a feelgood movie à la française which piles on the schtick in the story of a family where all the members apart from the eldest daughter are deaf. It has French critics in raptures while English-speaking audiences may recoil at the crass, at times, crude attempt to wring comedy from a politically correct minefield. The lead actress Louane Emera was a contestant on the French version of The Voice. She reached the semi-finals of season two and its hard not to see a blatant attempt to cash in on her appeal with French fans of the TV programme. But it’s a mystery why such top drawer actors as Karin Viard ( Lulu Femme Nue, On a Failli Etre Amies) and Eric Elmosnino ( Gainsbourg, an Heroic Life) opted into the project.
Emera is Paula, a high school student who decides to join the school choir to cosy up to the boy she has a crush on (ilian Bergala). Paula’s family life is complicated. Both her mother Gigi (Viard), her father Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg) are deaf and she runs the day-to-day administration of the family’s dairy farm. During choir practice, the music teacher Monsieur Thomasson (Elmosnino) discovers Paula has an extraordinairy voice and encourages her to sit an exam to study singing in Paris. The issue raises a number of concerns for Paula’s family who use her as a conduit to communicate with the outside world.
It’s clear from the outset there is nothing subtle or sophiscated about the comedy in play. Early on Paula accompagnes her mother and father to the gynaecologist and translates into sign language the doctor’s advice for her parents to abstain from sex for three months. When Paula’s younger brother has sex for the first time he finds out he has an allergy to latex and becomes unconscious. Not to mention the scene where Paula physically becomes a woman and her mother runs around as if she has just won the lottery – all in front of the bewildered boyfriend.
Cheap, lazy sexual jokes apart, it’s the portrayal of the deaf family members that verges on the insulting. Gigi and Rodolphe come across more like petulant children than responsible adults. Viard is in overdrive – pouting, grimacing, arms windmilling at every turn, while her stock response when failing to understand a situation is to smile idiotically at the speaker. And the film’s subplot where Rodolphe decides to stand as town major is rife with embarrasing cliches. Interestingly the film’s only deaf actor is Gelberg who plays Quentin and his performance is a model of restraint. There is arguably a fine line in comedy between finding the humour in odd situations and letting the audience in on the joke and taking pot shots at people with a physical handicap. La Famille Bélier crosses that line.
Philippe de Chauviron’s Qu’est ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu (Serial (Bad) Weddings) will end the year as the most successful French film of 2014 with over 12 million admissions in France. That film has failed to be picked up by distributors in some English-speaking countries because it was deemed too politically incorrect. Only time will tell if La Famille Bélier will suffer the same fate.