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La Vie Domestique (Domestic Life): Montreal Review

The Bottom Line

The drama paints a stark portrait of middle-class motherhood.

Venue

Montreal World Film Festival, Focus on World Cinema

Cast

Emmanuelle Devos, Julie Ferrier, Natacha Regnier, Helena Noguerra, Laurent Poitrenaux

Director-Screenwriter

Isabelle Czajka

Isabelle Czajka adapts a Rachel Cusk novel about mothers in the suburbs.

MONTREAL — A French film adapting a British novel whose characters any upper-middle-class American will recognize instantly, Isabelle Czajka's La Vie Domestique finds the disappointments of suburban motherhood are universal. Hovering between sympathy for and critique of its middle-aged child-rearers, it is least ambiguous in its depiction of their husbands as oblivious necktie-wearers who feel off-the-clock as soon as they come home and derive an unjustified sense of importance from what they do at the office. The vision isn't as dispiriting as it might have been; though a little more bitter humor would have gone a long way at the box office, arthouse prospects are strong for the assured, well-acted film.

Despite what turns out to be a group-portrait approach, the film is rooted by Emmanuelle Devos's Juliette, who features in both its day-in-the-life main narrative and in a prelude-like dinner party set the evening before. There, a condescending businessman's question -- "So what's your job, sweetheart?" -- makes it clear that whatever she does or is trying to do, Juliette is secondary to husband Thomas (Laurent Poitrenaux).

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Interactions between the two make clear how left-out-to-dry Juliette feels when it comes to household duties. Though Thomas may not fully deserve Juliette's withering gaze -- in Devos's performance, it silently means everything from "could you please give me some support for once?" to "back off before I can't keep myself from wringing your neck" -- it's clear he doesn't adequately appreciate the situation he leaves behind when he heads to work.

Taking the kids to school in between meetings about a possible new job, Juliette crosses paths with Betty (Julie Ferrier), an old schoolmate she hasn't seen in years. She suggests they and another couple have dinner together later that night; while Juliette starts trying to juggle child care and suddenly urgent career opportunities with planning the evening's meal, the film follows Betty's considerably more leisurely day.

A more stereotypical housewife, Betty has other mothers over for coffee and croissants ("I have to go -- it's the man about the boiler," she says when they arrive, weaseling out of a phone call about family tragedy); goes shopping for something to make her look younger; weeps quietly not over TV reports of starving refugees but about what a friend's child did to her pristine white sofa.

While the film expands its take on its subjects' often hollow lives and the inequities of their marriages (as Juliette's mother says of her late father, "I gave half my life to him; I'm not sure he gave half to me") a different kind of motherhood story plays out in the background. Throughout the day we hear news reports about a kidnapped child, one from a working-class household that doesn't live quite far enough from this verdant community to be invisible to its inhabitants. Though it doesn't spend much time thinking about it, the film tacitly acknowledges that "the domestic life" means very different things at different points on the economic spectrum.

Production Company: AGAT Films & Cie

Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Julie Ferrier, Natacha Regnier, Helena Noguerra, Laurent Poitrenaux

Director-Screenwriter: Isabelle Czajka

Based on the Novel "Arlington Park" by Rachel Cusk

Producer: Patrick Sobelman

Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing

Music: Eric Neveux

Editor: Isabelle Manquillet

Sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 97 minutes