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A cantankerous French caterer has to try and create a fairytale wedding while relying on the most disorganized group of waiters, cooks, photographers and wedding singers in the history of holy matrimonies in C’est la Vie (Le Sens de la fete). This is an expertly assembled, tartly played and hugely enjoyable romp from directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, whose Intouchables became a monster hit a few years ago (that film was remade stateside this year as The Upside). The duo’s latest, which closes the Toronto International Film Festival, is a sprawling and often hilarious ensemble comedy almost entirely shot at a 17th century chateau that will be a serious moneymaker locally. It will also appeal to foreign distributors interested in subtitled mainstream fare.
Who else but the French king of withering put-downs and lackadaisical looks, Jean-Pierre Bacri, could have played the role of Max, an I’ve-seen-it-all caterer with added wedding-planner duties who’s been charged with organizing the momentous day of Pierre (Benjamin Lavernhe) and his bride-to-be, Helena (Judith Chemla). His pragmatic motto is “We need to adapt,” and there will be plenty of opportunities to do just that, as nothing goes as planned during either the preparations or the evening celebration itself.
First off, there’s the monstrous ego of the wedding singer, Etienne, aka DJ James (Gilles Lellouche), who was hired at the last minute. Not only does he make up the lyrics to the Italian- and Portuguese-language songs he sings, but he also constantly picks fights with Adele (Eye Haidara), Max’s potty-mouthed second-in-command. Adele did her maladroit friend, Samy (Alban Ivanov), a favor by getting him a waiter position, though he has zero experience and his vocabulary is limited, which in turn annoys fellow waiter and former French teacher Julien (Vincent Macaigne). To complicate matters even more, Julien still carries a torch for a woman from his past who unexpectedly turns up at the wedding.
Max is one of the few people to still hire Guy (the directors’ regular star, Jean-Paul Rouve), a photographer who seems more interested in the wedding snacks and the unexpected opportunities offered by geolocalization than in his job. This means that the bright young kid (Gabriel Naccache) whom he’s showing the ropes is not only required to carry his equipment but also inquire how the chefs are thinking of preparing the foie gras. Food is, of course, a source of mishaps, too: Some of James’ musicians get food poisoning and the main course for all the guests need to be replaced at the last minute when Samy does some unfortunate unplugging. But what perhaps bothers Max more than anything is that Josiane (Suzanne Clement), with whom he’s been secretly having an affair, has not only decided to give him the cold shoulder until he’s talked to his wife but has openly started flirting with a young policeman (Kevin Azais) who’s moonlighting as a waiter. And we haven’t even mentioned the few “small” requests and ideas that the groom has in mind, including a floating surprise that is the film’s biggest generator of sustained belly laughs.
Like expert jugglers at a slapstick circus, the directors keep most of the characters and their faults and needs neatly in the air, with the rhythm hardly flagging and the tone buzzy and bustling throughout without becoming exhausting. Avishai Cohen’s jazz-infused score is a great help in keeping things fizzy, as are cinematographer David Chizallet’s fluid follow shots.
Max, as the man responsible for running the event, functions as the narrative linchpin to which the various subplots keep circling back as he needs to keep adjusting his plans to avoid an outright disaster. In large ensemble works such as these, there’s always a character or two that feels shortchanged, and here the too-shy waiter (Antoine Chappey) who keeps suggesting he’ll talk to the boss about the waiters’ ridiculous lacquey costumes and wigs feels too much like a single-idea stock character. There’s also a minor subplot involving fireworks that doesn’t quite give the viewers the expected bangs for their buck.
But generally speaking, this is a zippy and zinger-filled affair that keeps racist and gay jokes to a minimum — which hasn’t always been the case in the filmmakers’ previous efforts — and instead offers carefully crafted character comedy, some hilarious slapstick and a cute love story or two as well as a few solid musical moments. Lellouche did his own singing and impresses, but it’s an unexpected Asian interlude that offers the film’s most quietly magical moment as the evening finally draws to a close.
The role of Max was specifically created for Bacri, who, per the press notes, also offered some input. Though not officially credited as a co-writer here, the actor is also an accomplished screenwriter in his own right, most famous for his collaborations with Agnes Jaoui (The Taste of Others, Look at Me). Whereas Bacri’s own films often dissect the French bourgeoisie with prickly wit and razor-sharp insight, here it’s the French working class that’s in for a gentle ribbing or two, with the clearly rich family throwing the wedding otherwise not part of the plot except for the bride, groom and the semi-inappropriate mother of the groom (Helene Vincent, in an amusing cameo).
Production companies: Quad+10, Gaumont, TF1 Films Production, Main Journey, Apache Productions, La Compagnie Cinematographique
Cast: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Vincent Macaigne, Alban Ivanov, Eye Hadara, Suzanne Clement, Helene Vincent, Judith Chemla, Benjamin Lavernhe, Antoine Chappey
Writer-directors: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache
Producers: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun
Director of photography: David Chizallet
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Dorian Rigal Ansous
Music: Avishai Cohen
Casting: Elodie Demey, Natacha Kossmann, Marie-France Michel
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
In French, Tamil
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