La Famille Bélier
France (2014) Dir. Eric Lartigau
Anyone who wins The Voice in the UK disappears without a trace from the public eye literally seconds after the show ceases transmitting. In France making it to the semi-final actually earns offers of film acting roles which then makes you a star overnight with earns you a prestigious award to boot!
The eponymous La Famille Bélier – father Rodolphe (François Damiens), mother Gigi (Karin Viard), daughter Paula (Louane Emera) and son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) – who run a farm and are popular within the community. Needing to choose an after school club Paula reluctantly joins the choir and reveals an impressive singing voice, prompting her tutor Mr. Thomasson (Éric Elmosnino) to encourage Paula to audition for the prestigious Maîtrise de Radio France choir in Paris.
Paula‘s parents are reluctant to let her go, partly because they feel she is too young and because they value her contribution to the farm, and soon petty tensions begin to create a divide. Meanwhile after the incumbent mayor (Stéphan Wojtowicz) announces plans for the area which will jeopardise the farming business, Rodolphe decides to stand as a candidate himself.
For Emera, semi-finalist of the 2013 The Voice: la plus belle voix, this may seem like a busman’s holiday and a typically safe route for a singer to break into acting, certainly de rigueur for pop acts in the 50’s and 60’s, with varying degrees of success. As valid as this appears there is something which I have deliberately neglected to mention which will put Emera’s debut – and the film’s plot into a different perspective.
Everyone in the Bélier family is deaf except for Paula. She has never sung publicly because she has had no real cause to with a family who can’t hear her voice. The parents object to Paula’s singing aspirations, not because they don’t think she can handle it as they say, rather that they have no idea if she sounds good or not.
There is also the slight issue of Paula being the sole source of communication for the family with the outside world, fielding all phone calls and interpreting to and from sign language. Being arguably the most integral part of the family means Paula has incredible equity within the family which they realise but, just like most families, can’t articulate their feelings so well. But Paula also deserves to fly with her own wings as the lone non-deaf member of the family who function so well as a “normal” unit that surely it would be the normal thing to do to let her go?
Eric Lartigau’s film has a very strong comedic bent to it, opening with some bawdy humour as Paula is forced to interpret the discussion with their family doctor (Jérôme Kircher) concerning the problems her parents are having concerning their intimate body parts. Elsewhere Quentin discovers he has an allergy to latex at the most unfortunate moment and the less said about the public celebration of Paula entering womanhood the better!
The humour can be coarse – sometimes the parents sign things which are ruder than Paula translates them as – and often quaint too, mostly through the chemistry of the cast who do come across as a tight and “regular” family unit. For Paula she also has the same teenage problems as other girls but discussing them with her parents and other facets, like bringing boys home, is a bigger struggle.
While Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe presents a gritty and less formulaic look at deaf people, complete with a fully deaf cast and no subtitles, Lartigau isn’t using the mainstream approach and appeal of this film to mock, pity or exploit the deaf either. Really, the struggle is more Paula’s for being the “odd one out” and being at the age where she wants to live her life is more aware of her family ties than most kids her age would be.
Conversely the family don’t consider themselves burdened by their impairment either, with Rodolphe’s campaign slogan being “We Hear You!”, and the community take to them just fine regardless of this communication barrier. This then relieves the audience of any guilty thoughts of pity or sympathy early on when they are just as robust as you or I.
It is worth noting though that only Luca Gelberg as Quentin is legitimately deaf; the appointment of fully hearing actors has caused some people to scoff and accuse this of being the 21st equivalent of blacking up, especially in the light of The Tribe, but Lartigau had professional signers and real deaf people to teach the cast sign language, which as we see on screen they seem to have perfected.
Possibly the only concern is that Karin Viard, who is one of France’s best comedy actresses, does seem to be a little over the top with her facials and bodily reactions which might be where the misgivings come from, but Lartigau must have had a reason to direct her this way, and she does bring a quirky sense of normalcy to this uncharacteristically silent role, which earned her a Best Actress award at the Lumières Awards
The signs that this was a vehicle designed solely to showcase Louane Emera aren’t as overt had this been a Hollywood project, but the debutante acquits herself very well, especially as she is in most of the scenes and has to contend with the sign language too. If she stays with acting – which she should consider – Emera has built a solid foundation with a César and Lumières Award already to her name from this film.
A Hollywood remake is in the works (I’m guessing Chloe Moritz will star purely based on looks and age similarities) which of course will be sappy and heavy-handed, and not as frothy and heart-warming as this original. So make a point to meet La Famille Bélier before they become The Bellend Family.