A Better Life (Une vie meilleure): Toronto Review

An intriguing, good-hearted, small-scale drama about a family, of sorts, searching for a better life amid the recession and rampant debt.

French auteur Cédric Kahn and stars Guillaume Canet and Leïla Bekhti create a heartfelt drama about love and ambition during a time of recession.

Filmmakers the world over want to surprise audiences, and French auteur Cédric Kahn has certainly done so in A Better Life. Like life itself, the movie starts in one direction, then heads in another, hits a detour and finally comes to rest in a completely different place and even country. One is hard put to label this movie. It’s a drama, for certain, but a romance becomes a meditation on parenthood, then turns into a bit of a crime story.

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The film should do well on screens big and small throughout Europe and might find a life, probably for better rather than worse, in overseas distribution thanks to Kahn’s name and perhaps even more its lead actor, Guillaume Canet, a noted actor (Last Night) as well as director (Little White Lies,Tell No One). One would only hope a North American distributor might change the title because while A Better Life is a direct translation of the French title, a superb film by Chris Weitz already staked its claim to that title earlier this year.

Canet plays Yann, a trained chef who can’t find work in any Paris restaurants due to his lack of experience. At least at one job interview he sparks to the ethereal beauty of one of the staff, Nadia (Leïla Bekhti). A hot romance ensues, which quickly becomes serious enough for him to contemplate family life with the French-Lebanese woman and her young son, Slimane (Slimane Khettabi).

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Then the trio stumbles upon a derelict lakeside building in the woods outside Paris. Yann immediately sees its possibilities as a fine dining establishment. All he needs are considerable bank loans to buy and renovate the place. Alas, Yann lacks any business sense so he becomes mired in debt and quarrels between him and Nadia threaten their storybook romance. Things reach a point that his impatient girlfriend takes off for a better job in Montreal but — and this is a real credibility stretcher — she leaves Slimane in Yann’s care.

Once past that implausible plot point, the movie then watches the developing relationship between the man and young boy. Yann, it turns out, grew up in foster care so he knows something about being “abandoned” by parents. Which doesn’t necessarily make him a good father but he has the same doggedness in this relationship as he does in his quixotic quest to open a restaurant.

These passages, which form the true heart of the movie, contain several very effective scenes but none feels forced or corny as so often happens when movies portray growing affection between a man and boy. Kahn and his co-writer Catherine Paillé bring naturalness to these developments, adding moments of tension to those that bring laughter and camaraderie.

A third act takes Yann’s indebtedness and foolhardy actions into the realm of crime which, coupled with the legal informality of their relationship in the eyes of social workers, causes the two to attempt to flee for Canada in search of Slimane’s mysteriously disappeared mother.

It’s doubtful anyone would dream up such a story without the worldwide recession — a story where love and crime all hinge on mounting debts and joblessness. So perhaps A Better Life will be all the more remarkable in future years when it will speak to the era we all find ourselves in and to the quotidian struggles of people on the margins such as Yann and Nadia.

Even now though, A Better Life is a pretty remarkable document as it speaks to the way love and ambition can persevere against the odds in any era.


Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Companies: Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Leïla Bekhti, Slimane Khettabi.
Director: Cédric Kahn.
Screenwriters: Cédric Kahn, Catherine Paillé.
Producers: Gilles Sandoz, Denise Robert, Daniel Louis.
Executive producer: Kristina Larsen.
Director of photography: Pascal Marti.
Production designer: François Abelanet.
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul.
Editor: Simon Jacquet.
Sales: Wild Bunch.
No rating, 110 minutes.