Charlotte de Turckheim’s last directorial stint Mince Alors (Big is Beautiful) took over 1.5 million at the box office with its storyline of female bonding at a weight-loss spa in southern France. Turckheim is back with the same focus on female solidarity in Qui c’est Les Plus Fortes based on Clément Koch’s 2011 hit play Sunderland. Turckheim has transplanted the story from the backdrop of economically deprived Sunderland in north-east England to the French equivalent in Saint Etienne. All the elements of Koch’s original play are still there and although several timely and worthy issues are raised, unfortunately none are explored in any depth leaving the impression Turckheim has opted for comedy over social commentary. The film has been compared by some critics to Peter Catteneo’s The Fully Monty with its ‘Oh So British’ mix of wry humour and social drama. And the comparison is not totally without substance. Cattaneo’s film is now nearly 20 years old and although the economic context in Qui c’est Les Plus Fortes is bang up to date, it feels stale and dated.
Samantha (Alice Pol) and her BFF Céline (Audrey Lamy) are struggling to make ends meet after a local factory closes down putting them both out of work. Céline moves in with Sam and her younger sister Kim (Anna Lemarchand) and earns money working for a sex hotline. Kim has behavioural problems stemming from a car crash when she was a young child in which her mother died and social workers have threatened to put her into foster care unless Samantha can find work. With no job prospects on the horizon, and after turning down a marriage proposal from her neighbour Dylan (Bruno Sanchez), she decides to accept an offer from a homosexual couple to be a surrogate mother for their unborn child despite strong opposition from Céline.
While French politicians rushed to congratulate the French films and actors who won awards at last month’s Cannes film festival, French centre-right newspaper Le Monde
was eager to point out government ministers might have been a bit quick off the mark in their praise as neither Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan
or Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché
present a flattering portrait of modern French society. And Qui c’est Les Plus Fortes
is another addition to the list of French films which are not afraid to show a country crippled by unemployment which is leaving a whole generation without hope for the future. Against this bleak backdrop, Turckheim struggles to find any laughs other than those arising from the caricatural figures of Céline and the two social workers assigned to Kim’s case (Turckheim and Patrick Thibaud). Add in the issue of surrogate motherhood which is only referred to in hushed tones – and the moral and social implications completely ignored – and the direction of the film becomes muddled and unsatisfying. There’s no real explanation as to why Céline and Dylan find the idea so unacceptable which in a country that allows gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, is straying into dodgy territory. Even more so when Céline finally voices her objection to the surrogacy on the grounds that children need a mother and a father.
Likewise, the attitude towards Kim’s mental problems which are simply used as the pretext for Samantha’s desperate search for employment. Nothing is said of the real difficulties these children face in an education system which is not flexible enough to cater to their needs. Fortunately Pol comes the rescue and brings a credibility and depth to the film which is lacking elsewhere. Lamy is the star of a hugely popular television series, Scènes de Ménage
and is having some difficulty in breaking away from the role of fun, loyal best mate on the big screen. Sanchez is also a familiar face on French TV as one half of Catherine and Liliane in a prime time slot on cable TV channel Canal Plus. He fails to make his mark here just as he did in Le Talent de Mes Amis
directed by Alex Lutz released a few weeks ago in France.
Ultimately, it seems Turckheim is a talented comic actress who is funnier in front of, rather than behind, the camera.