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A distressed father of two gets involved in community theater when his wife leaves him in the tender family drama Real Love (C’est ca l’amour). This is the first solo effort as a director from French filmmaker Claire Burger, who won the Camera d’Or in Cannes in 2014 for Party Girl, which she co-directed with Marie Amachoukeli and Samuel Theis. She here returns home to the village of Forbach, on the Franco-German border, where a bearded administrative employee with a teenage daughter into boys and drugs and a tween daughter wrestling with her sexuality are not the only ones requiring his attention, as his wife announces she wants to leave the family home to think things over for a while.
Belgian actor-director Bouli Lanners (Rust and Bone, Heal the Living) carries most of the film on his sturdy shoulders as a papa bear with a sorrowful gaze, while Burger’s relative inexperience shows in the way the narrative can’t quite decide whether it is really his story or that of his entire family. Yet Real Love — the French title literally translates as the more evocative This Is What Love Is — is a quite moving portrayal of one family’s struggles in a small town that should do well at festivals and at Francophone showcases. It premiered in Venice in the independently programmed Venice Days section.
Regional authorities administrative employee Mario (Lanners) is, like many in the former mining region of northeastern France, of Italian extraction. His daughter Niki (Sarah Henochsberg) is 17 and almost ready to fly the nest, while her younger sister, the more androgynous-looking Frida (Justine Lacroix), has secretly started experimenting with other girls. Their mother, Armelle (Cecile Remy-Boutang, improbably also the production manager), is a lighting technician at the local theater. She seems unaware of what’s happening with her daughters as she’s struggling with her relationship with Mario to the extent that she decides to move out of their home — and, for a good part of the film, literally out of the picture.
Mario’s routine is suddenly thrown for a loop, as he suddenly has to face life and parenting duties without a partner. The easiest solution, in his eyes, is to try and talk to Armelle even though she doesn’t seem to want that. This results in him sneaking into performances at the theater where she works — sometimes with his girls — as well as actually enrolling in a community theater group that has its rehearsals in Armelle’s workplace. In the early going, Burger, who also wrote the screenplay, mines Mario’s double agenda and little actual interest in the rehearsals for some gentle moments of humor, though the direction in which this particular subplot is headed is not exactly a surprise, as the improvised work they are rehearsing requires each of the participants to bring something of themselves to the piece.
In the second act, about 25 minutes in, Burger widens the view to follow Mario’s daughters away from their embattled father as well. It is nice to see how confident Niki is with the handsome Nazim (Lorenzo Demanget), telling him to “not get any ideas” after they kiss. Niki is only three years older than Frida but clearly further ahead, as Frida has just started experimenting with the too-cool-for-school Alex (Celia Mayer), a female classmate. During a sleepover at Frida’s, which Mario himself suggested, he sees the two girls kiss, which makes his parental anxiety spiral out of control. Not necessarily homophobic, Mario clearly thinks things are going too quickly for his youngest daughter, though it is finally the warmth and finesse of Lanners’ performance — rather than Burger’s writing — that help suggest that the separated father of two might just be panicking about all the sudden changes in his life more than anything specific related to Frida’s sexual awakening or orientation.
On Party Girl, Burger worked exclusively with non-professional actors from the family of co-director Theis, whose stories inspired the screenplay. One of the reasons that film felt so authentic was that it convincingly blurred the lines between documentary reality and fiction. Here, Burger filmed in her own childhood home in Forbach but as a solo writer she struggles with the work’s point of view. The entire first act suggests the film is about Mario, but as the view widens, the focus of the story is diluted as we get to know his daughters better. Even Armelle makes a comeback, with a late-in-the-game and well-scripted scene in which she takes her daughters out for lunch and the two react very differently to her new circumstances (Henochsberg is especially good in this particular conversation as the wiser yet also hurt older daughter).
This imbalance between the characters short-changes all of them as the viewer searches to comprehend which of the characters to identify with and there finally isn’t enough time to develop all of them properly because their solo subplots eat into each other’s screen time. This is especially problematic for an unexpected twist involving herbal tea, which lacks the prerequisite character motivation to be really believable, though the aftermath of that scene is among the pic’s warmest moments. And thankfully, the cast is all-round solid, from Lanners down to newcomers Lacroix, Henochsberg and Demanget.
On a technical level, assembly is mostly workmanlike, with Burger putting the locations so familiar to her to good use. A ballet choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj is unexpectedly and rather movingly used to elevate the story above its working-class origins, suggesting art really can speak to people from all walks of life.
Production companies: Dharamsala, Arte France Cinema, Mars Films, Scope Pictures
Cast: Bouli Lanners, Justine Lacroix, Sarah Henochsberg, Cecily Remy-Boutang, Antonia Buresi, Celia Mayer, Lorenzo Demanget
Writer-director: Claire Burger
Producer: Isabelle Madelaine
Director of photography: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editors: Laurent Senechal, Claire Burger
Casting: Cynthia Arra
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Sales: Indie Sales
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