Life Is A Long Quiet River (Cert 15)

1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 91 minutes approx.

Release Date – July 20th

It’s all in the breeding. It is generally accepted that people turn out a certain way due to their surroundings or upbringing – those who grow up with luxury will never know the struggle of those living in poverty. Some get to experience both worlds but which one is the right one for them?

Two families who couldn’t be any more different are the impoverished Groseilles and the affluent Le Quesnoys. Both families are about to be united in shock when they each receive a letter from a nurse, Josette (Catherine Hiegel). Furious after being dumped by married lover Dr. Louis Mavial (Daniel Gélin), Josette reveals that 12 years earlier she swapped two babies born at the same time, handing them to the wrong parents.

Maurice Le Quesnoy went home with the Groseilles and Bernadette to the Le Quesnoys. The families agree Maurice (Benoît Magimel) should live with his real parents but fragile Bernadette (Valérie Lalonde) should not be told yet and remain where she is. By way of compensation, the Groseilles accept financial support from the Le Quesnoys as their “Momo” starts his new life.

French cinema can be an acquired tastes, more so their comedy. Unless they go all out wacky not all of the jokes translate to well for international audiences who aren’t ardent Francophiles. Life Is A Long Quiet River is the 1988 debut film from Etienne Chatiliez, a former advertising copywriter turned director of quirky commercials that led to a leap to film making.

Apparently a cult favourite among French teens from its regular presence on TV, echoes of Chatiliez’s advertising past can be found in the cynicism and satirical riffing on the rich lifestyle and the caricature of the slovenly existence of the poor. Coupled with how many of the scenes play out like unconnected vignettes, the loose narrative and structure is something of a detriment to the fertile plot.  

Chatiliez opens the film with a shot of the small grocery store run by immigrant Hamed (Abbes Zahmani), outside of which a parked car summarily explodes! According to a TV news bulletin shortly after, this was another in a spate of racially motivated attacks, yet the subject is ever breached again. It’s a hell of an opening but has nothing to do with the story other than to introduce Hamed since the Groseilles are regular customers, and Momo often works for him.

By the time the bombshell of the switch is dropped, the film is already 30 minutes old and has an hour left to run. The backstory needed telling but didn’t need this long to do so, a frustration that will be felt when the end credits run just as the story is picking up steam. Between the chapters of the saga of the doomed love affair, we are at least granted an introduction to the true stars of the show, the aggrieved families.

The Groseilles – all eight of them – live in a crowded council flat, existing off money scams, shoplifting, and any other short cuts they can find. The mother (Christine Pignet) is a typical slattern, the father (Maurice Mons) sits around all day playing cards, unable to work because of an injury. Their offspring are all terrors of varying ages from toddler to twenty-something, with Momo being the only intelligent and reliable one; the only other one closest to being productive is trampy older sister Roselyne (Claire Prévost).

Observing the other well-worn stereotype, there are only seven in the huge house the Le Quesnoy family call home, but they do have a housekeeper Marie-Thérèse (Catherine Jacob). Jean Le Quesnoy (André Wilms) is the managing director of the French EDF and like his wife Marielle (Hélène Vincent), is a devout Catholic, which is also how they have brought their children up. Aside from Bernadette acting a little odd recently, the Le Quesnoy children are obedient cherubs.

With alarming haste – literally a jump cut from one scene to the next – Maurice is now a smartly dressed, polite Stepford son of the Le Quesnoy household, treated with the same affection as his siblings, whilst his “ex-family” are spending their financial support like there is no tomorrow. But, it was Maurice who suggested they could make out of this, so what game is the little scamp playing? And what of Bernadette?

As mentioned earlier, the pacing of this 90-minute film is counterproductive from the outset, the unnecessarily bloated opening act likely to put people off waiting for the real plot to begin. The story may not be original but it is how it is told that matters, and at so many points during the film, it seems Chatiliez has a real grasp on this fact, especially in the subtle subversion and anarchy Maurice brings to his conservative new home.

Returning to the point about French humour not always translating well overseas, it is not unfair to say the stereotyped characters is the easiest hook for non-French audiences to find humour in. Most savage is the priest with the cheesy grin, singing an upbeat and irony free song about Jesus returning like he is Elvis, hitting the spot with the same precision as barbs aimed at the bourgeois existence of the Le Quesnoy.

Except the sneaky machinations of Maurice are hitting their peak in bringing disruption to his perfect new home when the film unexpectedly wanders towards the final shot. I daren’t presume to suggest Chatiliez didn’t have a proper ending in mind but had hoped he would have left us with a wink or something more substantial so we can draw our own conclusions on what the future may have been.

Despite feeling underwhelmed by Life Is A Long Quiet River I didn’t hate it – I wanted to like it more because I wanted more of it. When it is on target it’s a great satire, it is the extraneous material that lets it down. However, this fabulous new HD transfer makes it much easier to consume.

 

Extras:

French Language Original Mono Audio

English Subtitles

Archive Interviews:

Director Étienne Chatiliez

Actor André Wilms

Co-writer/Co-producer Florence Quentin

Producer Charles Gassot

Reversible Sleeve

First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet

 

Rating – ***

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