La Belle Vie: Venice Review
French director Jean Denizot's debut is loosely based on the case of Xavier Fortin, who was arrested in the Pyrenees in 2009 for the abduction of his children 10 years earlier.
A fictionalized account of a real-life French case in which a father kidnapped his two sons after losing a custody battle and raised them in hiding for a decade, La Belle Vie (The Good Life) is a coming-of-age drama that calls to mind Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty without the politics. Unfortunately, Jean Denizot’s handsome, well-acted first feature is also low on dramatic juice and character shading, meaning it’s absorbing enough but never acquires much emotional heft.
Shot in scenic rural locations in the Pyrenees and the Loire Valley, the film drops in on the self-exiled family unit when Sylvain (Zacharie Chasseriaud), 16, and Pierre (Jules Pelissier), 18, have been with their father Yves (Nicolas Bouchaud) for 11 years. The three live in virtual seclusion in trailers nestled in the mountains, having packed up and moved every time the authorities picked up their scent. While affection clearly binds them and the boys stay with their father by choice, Pierre in particular is beginning to chafe at the restrictions placed on his freedom.
When missing-children fliers turn up in the area, Yves declares that it’s time to relocate again. But when the boys sneak out to the village to go clubbing, Pierre gets into a fight for kicks, bolting off on a horse and hastening his father and brother’s departure.
While the film declines to explain why the boys’ mother has been so demonized, Denizot and Frederique Moreau’s screenplay implies that Yves chose a nomadic lifestyle as much due to countercultural aversion to conventional society as clandestine necessity. But without his idolized older brother for company, Sylvain becomes painfully aware of his isolation.
He meets flirtatious Gilda (Solene Rigot) while she’s fishing at a lake where he and his dad are hiding out in a houseboat. Their incipient romance hammers home to Sylvain what loyalty to his father is costing him. It also gives him an intoxicating taste of a life lived in the open.
Looking uncannily like a young Emile Hirsch, Chasseriaud brings tender openheartedness to the pivotal role. But Sylvain’s growing pains feel awfully familiar, even if his predicament and background fall outside the norm. The inevitable division of the family yields affecting moments, but the wishy-washy treatment of Sylvain’s first love all but grinds the story to a halt.
By placing the action at this particular juncture, when the boys are on the cusp of adulthood, the stakes are significantly lowered. If arrested, Yves appears headed for just two years prison time, which would likely be suspended with his sons’ testimony.
Restraint is clearly the director’s aim, and his avoidance of melodrama is admirable. But there’s a muted quality to the film’s emotional canvas that plays in discordant contrast to the warmth and crisp beauty of cinematographer Elin Kirschfink’s images. More jarring, however, is the unsubtle reference of showing both boys reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not to mention plastering the soundtrack with jaunty bluegrass and country tunes.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Cast: Zacharie Chasseriaud, Nicolas Bouchaud, Jules Pelissier, Solene Rigot, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Maya Sansa
Production companies: Mezzanine Films, Love Streams, Agnes B., M141, Arane Gulliver, Dublin Films, Shallec, Sedna Films, La Vie set Belle Films Associes, in association with Indefilms.
Director: Jean Denizot
Screenwriters: Jean Denizot, Frederique Moreau
Producer: Mathieu Bompoint
Executive producer: Claire Trinquet
Director of photography: Elin Kirschfink
Music: Luc Meilland
Editor: Aurelien Manya
Costume designer: Agnes Noden
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 93 minutes.