A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on the popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.
In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but for the film the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The other notable feature of La famille Bélier is that it is also a film about how discrimination affects hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.
Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over. Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. Costing an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.
La famille Bélier was taken up for a UK release by the Canadian multinational group eOne – possibly through links to its French operation. However despite its popularity in France (where it was one of the major hits of Christmas 2014) the UK cinema release was only to a handful of cinemas and festival screenings. The DVD came out only a couple of weeks later. I was fortunate that our local community cinema was able to show the DVD to an appreciative audience only a few days after its release. We had a good discussion after the screening and various points came up. There was some concern about the casting of hearing actors in deaf roles, but also a suggestion that the comic exaggeration of signing as ‘performed’ by Karin Viard and François Damiens as the deaf parents was perhaps appropriate since as non-speakers it was otherwise difficult for them to express emotions. This seems a reasonable argument but the comedy in the film is often very broad and there is another signing character who is ‘laughed at’ partly because he has poor social skills. Many of the comic scenes depend on the potential embarrassment of parents who must have their teenage daughter translate for them with officialdom (e.g. questions about sexual health at the local surgery).
Part of the issue is connected, as one audience member pointed out, with the setting of the story in Normandy and therefore the conventions of rural comedy (e.g. comparisons with the sophistication of the Paris music school and characters from Paris ‘stuck’ in the sticks) and also the French tradition of stories about local politics and the importance of mayoral elections. These are mixed in with the ‘family comedy’. But there are at least two other generic repertoires in play. One is the youth picture involving teenage sex, school feuds etc. and the other is the ‘feelgood’ film built here around the nurturing of Paula’s talent and an inevitable dash to get to the conservatory audition.
In the end I watched this film three times, twice in community cinema settings. I enjoyed it each time, especially because of the singing and the performances, especially by Louane Emera. It is a manipulative feelgood film and I can understand the concerns of deaf actors but I think it could have attracted significant audience numbers given a proper cinema release (and some promotion). If that had happened, at least some people would have become more aware of issues within families with deaf members.
Finally, a few weeks after our screenings, one of the audience members gave me a copy of a German film called Beyond Silence which he said was very similar in its story. I’d heard suggestions that this German film existed but I’ve only just watched it and I’ll blog about it soon.
If you can find the DVD give La famille Bélier a chance. Here’s a trailer with English subs:
A few weeks ago, the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote the following in a weekly ‘op ed’ column (i.e. not on the film pages):
Another Fiennes mess
There comes a time when you must put your hands up and confess you don’t get something. I don’t get people wanting to watch live theatre beamed into a cinema. But there it is: everyone except me loves it. These events are box-office gold, especially for hot-ticket events such as the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.
Yet there’s an unintended consequence here: possible danger to actual Shakespeare films. In Sight and Sound magazine, the industry observer Charles Gant reports that when Ralph Fiennes made his excellent film version of Coriolanus, it failed to break the £1m barrier; but the live-feed of the Donmar Warehouse theatre Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston has breezed up to £1.2m – and counting.
This could alter the economics of Shakespeare on the big screen: if cinemas prefer live-feed Shakespeare, it could dissuade producers from tackling the expensive business of original adaptation. The future equivalent of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight or Kozintsev’s Lear could be at risk. So there. I knew my live-feed prejudice was justified. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/john-lewis-christmas-advert)
As many of this blog’s followers will know I am wont to moan about Bradshaw’s reviews. But mainly this is because he appears to have a great deal of influence on whether people go to see the films he reviews. Whether we agree or not in our views on films isn’t important but if a bad review stops people seeing a worthwhile film it is important. In this case, however, I am pleased to see him airing a subject which, increasingly, I find alarming.
I should say first that Bradshaw was immediately criticised in some quarters for his London-centric view. For people near enough to a multiplex or a specialised cinema, live theatre (or opera which appears to be the most popular, according to some figures) is an unexpected bonus. Non-metropolitan audiences don’t have to visit London or pay the very high prices to watch a version of a particular production. So far, so good. But there are several points to make.
Who are these audiences for live theatre/opera? I haven’t attended any such screenings so I haven’t got much first-hand evidence but there have been various audience surveys. One by Nesta and The Audience Agency published in 2014 found that ‘National Theatre Live’ had had no impact on attendance figures at regional theatres and that in London, live audiences had actually risen by 6.9% in theatres close to those which had been used to broadcast live shows. This report refuted the claim that ‘live theatre’ broadcasts would ‘cannibalise’ theatre admissions. The National Theatre’s own Annual Report for 2013-4 claimed:
“NT Live reached a total UK audience of 890,000 (in over 500 cinema screens across the country) and overseas audience of 597,000. It is now regularly available in 1,000 cinemas across the world in more than 35 countries; the worldwide audience since National Theatre Live launched in 2009 has now reached 2.7 million”. (see http://www.cabi.org/leisuretourism/news/24080)
This research mirrors earlier NESTA findings. One conclusion is that the audience for live theatre/opera/ballet is the same mainly middle-class audience that goes to London shows, but now they are able to experience those shows nearer home. In general these are not ‘new’ theatre audiences, nor are many of them ‘cinema’ audiences. I have to rely on first-hand observation now. When I first saw the crowds coming for live theatre broadcasts in Bradford I realised that I didn’t recognise anyone and that they all seemed ‘dressed up’. They also flocked to the café-bar and had paid twice the usual ticket price. My observations were confirmed when I ran a day event on Kurosawa Akira and his film Throne of Blood (Japan 1957), a version of Macbeth. All seemed to enjoy the day but when I tried to interest them in future film screenings, one small group told me that they were ‘theatre people’ and didn’t go to the cinema!
The question about what ‘live theatre’ actually is – since it isn’t cinema and it isn’t the same as watching a play ‘in the flesh’ – hasn’t really been explored to any great extent that I’ve come across. In response to Bradshaw, some liked the idea of close-ups via the camera’s lens and others didn’t. I’m not in a position to judge and all I can say is that I don’t find the prospect of something staged for one medium being mediated through another a particularly attractive proposition. I’ve now seen dozens of trailers for NT Live shows and none of them appeal. But I’ve no problem with people who do want to see theatre in this way. Which leads me back to Bradshaw’s comments.
I’m not particularly bothered about filmed Shakespeare. I’ll watch Kurosawa or Kozintsev quite happily but Shakespeare in English leaves me cold. I know, but there it is. What I am bothered about is that every ‘live theatre broadcast’ takes away a screen that could be showing a real film and often a specialised film desperately searching for an outlet. The number of films released in the UK has increased to over 700 a year, but there hasn’t been a similar increase in screens. Compared to other major film markets, the UK is ‘under-screened’. France and the UK have roughly the same population (65-66 million) but there is a disparity in screens:
France (data from Cineuropa)
5,653 screens, 2,020 cinemas
Number of inhabitants per screen: 11,731
UK (data from Statistical Yearbook 2014)
3,867 screens, 756 cinemas
Number of inhabitants per screen: 16,394
Keith has recently come across examples of archive films he wanted to see that have been moved out of the most suitable screen because it was reserved for ‘live broadcasts’ on specific days. This will happen more and more as the funding of arts in the UK suffers under the Tories. It is worth noting that some of the screens used for ‘live broadcasts’ were upgraded (since they must be digital for the satellite feed) with public funds and that the BFI attempted to see that they were used to screen a diverse range of specialised cinema. That commitment to what was once called ‘cultural cinema’ is now gradually dying out. What were once publically-funded cinemas are being taken over or displaced by the privately-owned chains Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. The purpose of these chains is to make money and live theatre provides not only a sell-out crowd but also a ready supply of patrons for restaurant catering. Cinema managers can claim that they are bringing ‘high art’ to local cinemas (Picturehouse calls its programme that includes live broadcasts ‘Screen Arts’). But those ‘arts’ are being offered to the same people who go to local theatres, not introducing art cinema to new patrons.
My conclusion is that ‘live events’ should be put on in new buildings managed for that purpose or that cultural policy should be to create new publically-funded cinema screens for the diverse range of cinema. It’s not going to happen under this current government, but the cinema lobby needs to get back to concepts of cultural cinema (or something similar with a different title) and prepare for future funding opportunities. We’ve got to start talking about the missing screens and getting some agreements about what to do. And if we need concrete evidence of the problem, the statement by Unifrance, the French film export body, this week makes painful reading. French exports did very well around the world in 2014, except in the UK:
. . . the poor performance of French films in the UK market, the state of which the report described as “alarming”.
The report said that the UK remained a difficult market with fewer and fewer French films making it onto screens in the territory and only one majority French production generating more than 50,000 entries. (Screendaily 1/12/2015)
The decline of opportunities to see films from Europe’s biggest film industry is very noticeable. Back in the summer we noted the pathetic distribution of several major titles and it’s something we are going to keep banging on about. If audiences don’t get a chance to see foreign language films they are going to lose interest in the possibilities pretty quickly. Chains like Picturehouse now regularly show foreign language films just once in their Tuesday ‘Discovery’ slot and they promote their restaurants and live events as major attractions alongside a programme increasingly dominated by ‘Hollywood art’ films.
The English title for this film misses the political emphasis of the French original, literally ‘the law of the market’. A shame because this is a fine entry to the Official Selection at Leeds International Film Festival and is also touring in the French Film Festival UK. Vincent Lindon won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his performance as Thierry.
Thierry is a skilled machinist who lost his job when a factory closed. He is now enduring the bureaucracies inflicted on the unemployed as he seeks a new job. His home life is supportive but his son (Matthieu Shaller) suffers what seems to be Down’s Syndrome. In the course of the film we see Thierry’s encounters with Job Shops, Job Seeker courses, bank interviews and a Skype job application. They seem to be similar to and as oppressive as those in the UK. In the second part of the film he gets employment as a security guard in a hyper-market. We see the brutal procedures , not just for people caught shoplifting, but also for staff breaking the rules. There is a leaving ceremony for a retiring staff member at one point, replete with management rhetoric. In another scene we see a comment to Thierry by a colleague that managers are looking to lay off staff. Then the naked exploitative treatment that the rhetoric concealed.
I thought the handling of this story and the characters was excellent. The director Stéphane Brizé, who also worked on the script with Olivier Garge, has treated the themes admirably. In the Festival Catalogue he is quoted describing his work for the film:
“I wanted to look at and echo the humanity of a man mad into the cog of brutality of a system. I decided to point the camera on a straight honest type who unfortunately finds himself sidelines and experiencing his own humanity. My starting point was the question: would you do anything for a job, for a permanent contract? …
I spent months doing research and even did an internship as a security guard. Vincent Lindon also spent a good amount of time watching to see how it all works., listening, learning how to peak during interrogations, understanding how these people physically move around their environment. I also participated in various workshops held at the job centre on CV’s, on job interviews, to capture the reality, to see how the situation builds, to become familiar with the personal journey of a job seeker over 15 months, two years, etc.!”
The film is full of ironies, often quite funny. Some of the audience found the video job interview scene rather funny: for me it was so near the actuality that I could not laugh. And that is true of quite an amount of the film. I noticed that even the audience members who laughed did so less frequently as the film progressed. Parallel to this are the home scenes, full of the warmth and humanity lacking in the world of exploitative labour. The film relies on a low-key style and soundtrack. For much of the time the camera focuses on Thierry, often in a large close-up, but with the full widescreen still placing him among a setting or other characters.
There is an important earlier scene where Thierry meets his former workmates in a bar where they discuss legal action against the managers of the firm that closed down. Thierry is reluctant: a position that offers a comment on his responses as his situation deteriorates. The film’s ending is ambiguous, a car drives away. I felt that the audience could imagine a compulsory scene [one that the plot appears to make necessary] which would follow this.
I was reminded of The Axe / Le couperet (France, Belgium, Spain, 2005) directed and scripted by Costa-Gavras from the novel by Donald E. Westlake. That film though is farther up the class scale and has a far more sardonic treatment. It is depressing that the film has not had a UK release, if it turns up watch it. Meanwhile The Measure of a Man is held by New Wave Films, so it should be seen around the UK. It is in 2.35:1 and with English subtitles.
This film was part of the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is also part of French Film Festival UK (La fête du CINEMA 23), which is touring the country. There are four titles at LIFF, the two still to come are The Big Blue (1988) and The Measure of a Man (2015), both on Thursday November 12th.
This is a very funny but also quite delicate comedy. The French title translates literally as ‘For three shall we go’, but more colloquially as ‘One, two, three – go!’. The three is that classic French relationship, the ménage à trois. This suggests parallels with a range of films including a couple of French classics. However this film has its own distinctive take on the relationship. It works really well, partly due to the excellent performances with Anaiïs Demoustier as Mélodie, Sophie Verbeeck as Charlotte and Félix Moati as Micha. Mélodie is an advocate or lawyer, Micha is a vet and Charlotte is a part-time painter and singer. They are supported by a pretty strong script, excellent cinematography and sound. The film has a number of nice allusions, one is regarding a quotation thought to be Alfred de Musset but which turns out to be Marilyn Monroe.
The film’s director Jérôme Bonnell, was there for a Q&A after the film. This was chaired by Richard Mowe, from the French Film Festival UK. Unfortunately he started off as the end credits of the film were still rolling with the sound turned off: not a good idea. He also had to repeat the questions from the audience as the microphone did not stretch that far, and I thought he subtly altered a couple of these.
Bonnell first talked about the gestation and production of the film: similar to the quoted interview in the Festival Catalogue:
“The idea of this film lay dormant in my head for ten years. A couple who have an affair with the same person without knowing it. And it’s the enthusiasm of the tenacious producer Edouard Weil that spurred me on with the script, from a story I described to him in just a few words. It was then a surprise when the heart of the film struck me. This often happens: the depth of the story remains undercover emerging slowly during the process of writing, revealing something that’s been buried in us all along. In this case. as I constructed the scenario, what touched me most was the idea that two people . . . were both so in love with a third . . . they would eventually fall in love with each other, remote-controlled by their unconscious, because there would be such a strong shared emotion, mutual empathy would turn into pure and simple love. This story is like a fantasy given the freedom to go beyond all the problems associated with love: lying, betrayal, sadness, jealousy . . . bringing peace where there is usually conflict.”
In response to questions from the audience, who clearly really enjoyed the film, Bonnell praised the cast and their contributions. He emphasised that the film was fiction. And he explained the use of numerous large close-ups in the film which he felt sprang from the nature of the story and the relationships: and he stressed how important were the performances in enabling him to do this.
The really interesting question concerned the ending. Late in the film the trio realise that there are three affairs going on. Rather than being shocked or feeling betrayed they enjoy a night of love making. In the morning they have to rush to a wedding: this seemed a reference to the British Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). They later leave the wedding reception to spend the night on the beach. In the morning Charlotte departs, leaving Mélodie and Micha together. They wake and find her gone.
Bonnell felt this was the right ending, because it seemed to him that Mélodie and Micha were a couple. He added that he experimented with an earlier ending, but that did not seem right.
I was unconvinced by this explanation. In fact as the film ran I expected the ending earlier, either with shot of the three at traditional wedding in a coastal rural church or on the beach as they happily ran into the sea. I did not find the idea of a ‘couple’ convincing. I did not sense this during the film. As a friend remarked, Charlotte and Mélodie seemed more of a couple than Micha and Mélodie. This also seemed to run contrary to the quotation above.
Bonnell did twice stressed the idea of ‘lying’ in the relationships. This seemed a bit of a misnomer as well. Strictly speaking in the films, whilst the characters are ‘economical with the truth’, [beloved in the British Parliament], they do not lie. And there is no sense of betrayal when they discover each other’s affairs. To be honest, this struck me more typical of British inhibitions that my sense of French mores. I did wonder if this was a producer’s requirement [the production is not dominated by men], I also noticed that a sequence in Paris [the film is set in Lille] was signalled by a shot of Notre Dame.
Bonnell did also remark that he felt that the film could change the characters and their sexual orientation and the story would still work in a parallel fashion. This is so and is one angle that makes the film really interesting.
Ending apart, this is well worth watching and very funny. There is a party sequence where the film turns from the comedy to near farce. At the same time the relationships have an interesting dramatic quality. Mélodie ‘s advocate work involves a suggestive contrast with her personal sexual life.
The film is screening again at LIFF on Tuesday 10th and Wednesday 11th of November Note, it has an 18 Certificate in the UK: the BBFC over the top as usual.