Sandrine Kiberlain (Marie) and Edouard Baer (Sam) headline this slow, lazy comedy set against the backdrop of France’s current economic and social malaise. Benoît Graffin’s middle-class, married couple are doubtless there to demonstrate unemployment, homelessness and poverty are not the preserve of the disaffected working class. And the situation is ripe for an astute, well-observed, morally ambiguous black comedy. But Graffin muddies the water with several implausable subplots rendering the whole exercise needlessly complex. It’s a shame to waste such a fine comic actress as Kiberlain who has a wonderful feel for comedy and impeccable comic timing. Still her relationship with Baer is the highlight of the film as together they wring the best from a pedestrian script and a stilted, highly contrived scenario. Actor/singer Benjamin Biolay seems as bemused as the audience by his role as a rich, businessman determined to rescue Marie from her sordid existence. While veteran actress Bulle Ogier (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Céline and Julie go Boating) appears all to briefly as Marie’s eccentric mother Louise.
Marie and Sam and their two children Alexia (Carla Besnaïnou) and Clément (Mathieu Torloting) lead a very comfortable surburban existence until Sam loses his executive job and with it a large part of his self-esteem. Despite Marie’s constant nagging, Sam is unable to find employment. The family have moved into Louise’s tiny apartment in Paris’ well-heeled 16th arrondissement. And while Sam comes up with one hare-brained scheme after another, Marie and her two children are forced to live on their wits to feed the family. Alexia is studying for an entrance exam to a prestgious music school in Bordeaux and is allowed to practice on a piano belonging to Madeleine, a rich, elderly, ill-tempered neighbour. The family’s precarious situation is made worse when Madeleine suddenly drops dead and Alexia tries to hide her unfortunate demise from her parents.
It’s good to see French directors addressing a situation that has become a daily reality for millions of French citizens. And it adds a new twist to see how record high unemployment and lack of job opportunities is now hitting a section of society previously spared the threat of abject poverty. But Graffin never digs deep enough to expose the hypocrisy lying just below the surface. While the chattering class in France tuts over rising crime rates and lowering moral standards, Graffin’s family have no problem blaming their immoral behaviour on extenuating circumstances. This is ultimately a richer comic vein than the one Graffin taps into – the farcical disposal of Madeleine’s dead body.
It’s been 15 years since Graffin last stepped behind the camera with Beach Cafe based on a short story by Moroccan writer Mohammed Mrabet. In the intervening years he has co-written several films with Pierre Salvadori. They last worked together of Salvadori’s Dans la Cours with Catherine Deneuve in the lead role. Judging from Encore Heureux‘s uneven rhythm and muddled storytelling, Graffin can still learn from his long-time collaborator.