Sadly we’ve become accustomed to the bulk of the French film industry’s output bypassing our shores. Thankfully, a yearly two week festival dedicated to a diverse sampling of recent work continues to make inroads. Other than that, however, the trickle of French films granted general release here has mostly thinned down to a handful of quaint, whimsical, unchallenging crowd-pleasers and ones usually prefaced with dazzling one-line summation from unheard critics proclaiming each film’s heart-warming, life-affirming qualities.
The Belier Family (2014) is no exception; championed by the common folk in France who flocked to it in droves, the film arrives with an impressive range of rave reviews attached. Surely, then, it must have something special going for it? In fact, other than the winning lead performance of big-screen debutant Louane Emera, a former contestant of a French reality tv talent show, the only noteworthy aspects of The Belier Family concern how boring, clichéd and utterly stupid it is. And probably highly offensive to people with hearing impairments I’d imagine.
Depicted in the truly awful The Belier Family are the lives of a deaf husband, Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and wife Gigi (Karen Viard); their teenage son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) is also deaf. Only 16 year old daughter Paula (Emera) is able to hear and she shoulders much of the work connected to the running of the family’s farm, liaising with the locals with the buying of stock and selling of their dairy products at the local market. When she almost inadvertently reveals a wonderful singing voice in music class, she’s encouraged to develop her talent by flamboyant teacher Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino). However Paula is ashamed of her ability, fearing that to pursue it further would mean neglecting from her domestic duties, thus putting their livelihood in jeopardy.
Apparently all deaf people are idiots with restrictive world-views and resentful of anyone – including their daughter – who can hear. So does The Belier Family inform us – time and time again. The film’s relentless, one-note, dumbed-down provincial comedy is so pedestrian and mindless you’d think it was concocted by sparring 14 year olds trying to outdo one another with crudity and obviousness, the concepts of subtlety and wit as alien to their consciousness as the intricate technicalities of brain-surgery. Rodolphe’s attempts to become Mayor are especially laughable, though the dim-witted nature of the narrative struck a nerve, it seems, with the French who obviously split their sides at such laugh-riot scenes as Rodolphe’s interview with local press and his simple plea before a congregation of locals to vote for him despite displaying nothing but idiocy as a platform for his election campaign.
Karen Viard is actually one of my favourite French actresses of the last 20 years. Here, however, she achieves the truly unimaginable in lowering the notion of ‘overacting’ to excruciatingly awful new depths – and without ever uttering a single word in the film. Her absurd gamut of facial expressions and reactions, her overuse of physical gestures are so inappropriate, unbelievable and phony that I was actually cringing with acute embarrassment nearly every time she was on screen. Damiens, another otherwise talented performer, is also left to wither in the margins as director Eric Lartigau’s film takes the road most obviously travelled at every crossroads.
One fine, genuinely moving scene, as the film reaches its inevitable crescendo, partly redeems – though doesn’t come close – to saving it. In the wind up, Paula, you won’t be surprised to learn, gets to sing before judges and her parents at a serious competition and it’s a wonderful showcase for Emera who’s allowed to flaunt her vocal talent. Everything else about this trite and offensive film however, a film painfully lacking aspirations that might allow it to rise above the realm of generic cliché, is utterly irredeemable. Its themes of obligation to family and ties that bind versus following your true path in life have been handled in far more interesting and complex ways in so many other films. Here, simplicity is the only means Lartigau and his screenwriters have at their disposal to sketch their paltry notions of comedy and drama – notions thwarted at every turn by insensitivity towards and cluelessness about the very subject that should have been closest to their hearts when depicting the Belier family.