French filmmaker Jean Paul Rappeneau is most likely to be remembered by Argentine audiences thanks to his award-winning and Oscar nominated film version of Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), starring Gerard Depardieu and Anne Brochet. A few years later, and also starring Gerard Depardieu alongside Isabelle Adjani, Rappeneau premiered the wartime drama Bon Voyage (2003), which also gathered a fair number of César awards and nominations.
Now, after a long hiatus of 13 years, comes his new feature Belles familles, a typically French farcical comedy written and executed by-the-book, with luminous performances from a solid cast that includes Mathieu Amalric, Nicole García, André Dussolier, Gilles Lellouche, and Marine Vacth (the gorgeous beauty of François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful).
Moderately enjoyable even if unoriginal, Belles familles (translated to English as Families) finds its greatest assets in its very well-paced energetic tempo, some whimsical dialogue, some playfulness with clichés, but above all in the comedians’ expertise to flesh up characters that otherwise may at times be merely cartoonish. Directed with enough brio and confidence, this charming Gallic outing may be too generic to satisfy demanding moviegoers, but then again, despite all its awards and nominations, Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.
Jérôme Varenne (Mathieu Amalric) is a Shanghai-based French financier who makes a brief stop in Paris en route to London with his Chinese girlfriend and business partner, Chen-Li (Gemma Chan). As soon as he contacts his mother (Nicole García), he finds out that the family mansion in Ambray is going to be sold right away, and not without trouble, since it’s involved in a feud between an aggressive real estate developer, Piaggi (Gilles Lellouche), and the town mayor (André Dussollier). As soon as Jérôme starts examining the case, much to his surprise he learns that there were some dear secrets his father kept from everyone. Secrets that involve … another family.
Being a hectic farce, expect characters running, yelling, gesturing, and driving as they zip through smartly interconnected sequences with an obsessive sense of mise-en-scene and camerawork in which nothing is left to chance. Rappeneau is well known for planning each shot exhaustively and Belles familles is a sound example. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this very dynamic cinematic choreography cannot but be eye-catching, even when you realize there’s nothing much below the surface. Moreover, the far too glossy cinematography may be pleasing to the eye, but it doesn’t do much good for creating atmosphere.
On the plus side, it’s fair to say that when least expected, some characters have a chance to display some hidden layers, and so the entire affair becomes more nuanced. In the end, Belles familles is as effective as it could be in its exploration of upper-class miseries, family matters, secret loves, and second chances too. By the way, don’t take the over-the-top ending seriously either. Intentionally or not, it falls in the realm of strict parody. Which in this case is not a bad thing at all.
Belles familles/Families (France, 2015). Directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Written by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Philippe Le Guay, Julien Rappeneau. With Mathieu Amalric, Marine Vacth, Gilles Lellouche, Nicole Garcia, Karin Viard, Gemma Chan, André Dussolier. Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast. Editing: Veronique Lange. Running time: 113 minutes.