[Review/podcast] The Bélier Family

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I caught French-language film The Bélier Family rather late in its running schedule.

Consequently, I had to watch it in a tiny, over-crowded theatre with rather poor acoustics and a copy of the film which stuttered and hung worryingly, chopping the action up into little sections with dead black frames and broken audio in between. Still, it certainly lived up to the hype of the two loud girls on the bus behind me two days before, who were as impressed by this film’s quality as they were disgusted by The Revenant.

Sorry, Leo. Maybe next time.

The Bélier Family, unsurprisingly, follows the exploits of La Famille Bélier (as the French title has it), a loving nuclear family working in the cheese-production industry on a farm somewhere in rural France, a four-hour drive out of Paris. The story revolves around two distinct sub-plots: one is teenage daughter Paula Bélier’s discovery of her hitherto-unknown singing talent; the other is her father’s bid to run for mayor of their town, a process complicated by his own deafness plus that of his wife and son.

Already, you can probably pick the central struggle of the Bélier family under these trying circumstances. Paula, in typical teenage fashion, is torn between loyalty to her family and the possibility of attending a singing school in far-away Paris, while her parents fret about her safety and are bitter over what they perceive as her thoughtless abandonment of their beloved camembert. In many ways, the whole thing plays out like a typical coming-of-age story, except in French.

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That said, two things really distinguish The Bélier Family for me. The first is its easy portrayal of a deaf family’s experience of the world. Never does their disability or its consequences feel forced or artificially highlighted, and the exquisite tension of the hearing daughter pursuing a career fundamentally inaccessible to the rest of her family is touchingly and tastefully explored.

The other thing is that this movie is funny. The whole film is necessarily mired in the everyday yet lacks any but a few forced sitcom moments or misunderstandings. Director Eric Lartigau instead draws masterfully on the absurdity of the everyday to deliver a huge amount of frequently silent humor. In particular, Paula’s father’s rivalry with the grandstanding buffoon of a mayor as he seeks to run him out of office yields quite a lot of laughs, as do the romantic adventures of Paula’s best friend Mathilde.

Overall, The Bélier Family just feels complete. It has the whole blend of emotions that go into everyday life and an excellent soundtrack, which is helped along in no small part by actor Louane Emera’s superb soprano. The narrative feels comfortably at home in rural Paris, and the film avoids getting bogged down in the trap of repetitive teenage angst that coming-of-age stories often fall into. If genuine, slightly-exaggerated everyday stories are your kind of thing, you won’t be disappointed with The Bélier Family — assuming your copy of the movie doesn’t skip like mine.

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