'The Belier Family' ('La Famille Belier'): Black Nights Review

La Famille Belier - H 2014
Courtesy of Mars

La Famille Belier - H 2014

An occasionally crude but at other times heart-warming and insightful comedy-drama

Karin Viard, Francois Damiens and spectacularly talented newcomer Louane Emera headline Eric Lartigau's comedy-drama about a deaf French farming family

The decision of a talented teenage singer from a French farming family to maybe pursue her dreams in Paris wreaks havoc on her deaf parents and brother in The Belier Family (La Famille Belier), an accessible comedy-drama from director Eric Lartigau that was clearly made with holiday-season family audiences in mind. Debuting locally Dec. 17, this charming and funny if not entirely smooth concoction should largely click with multiplex audiences and has a good shot at becoming a very exportable or remake-worthy item abroad.

Paula (newcomer Louane Emera) is a spunky 16-year-old with a lot more chores than most; as the only hearing person of the Beliers, she has to frequently act as a go-between for her parents, the dairy farmers Rodolphe and Gigi (local stars Francois Damiens and Karin Viard, respectively) and her younger sibling, Quentin (Luca Gelberg, the only actually deaf cast member).

The screenplay, written by four people including Lartigau  (I Do, The Big Picture), French star screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone, Our Children) and Victoria Bedos, who used some autobiographical elements, initially focuses on how different Paula’s everyday life is from that of her peers. Breakfast is an extremely noisy affair of banging pots and clanging cutlery that only the teenager can hear, though the payoff is that she can leave for school saying “Later, losers!” and no one is the wiser. Even more telling is a scene where Paula has to translate the details of her parents’ sex life from sign language into French for a gynecologist, a scene that, while unsophisticated in terms of its humor, manages to be both funny and insightful, making it clear how much her parents depend on their daughter. 

Indeed, a clear understanding of how pivotal she is for the independent functioning of the Beliers is necessary so that the implications of her possibly leaving really do feel earth shattering. It started innocently enough, with the protagonist signing up for a school choir just because a cute boy, Gabriel (Ilan Bergala), did, too. But when the demanding music teacher (Eric Elmosnino, Gainsbourg) discovers her voice, he realizes she’s got a talent like few others and asks her to prepare a song together with Gabriel for a concert and enter a competition for a place at a prestigious institution in the capital.

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In pure (and also rather predictable) comedy mode, Paula decides not to tell her parents at first, instead saying she’s spending time with "her boyfriend" when she goes to practice. But in a nice touch, things with Gabriel take more time to heat up than she would like. A scene in which he’s confronted with the result of her first period -- which Paula’s mother shows him, no less -- might have something to do with that, though it’s one of several instances when the film feels too eager to wring laughs from every base plot twist at the expense of building in time to examine the characters’ reactions or any kind of psychological impact. Similarly, the idea that Paula’s deaf father wants to run for mayor (his campaign slogan: "I hear ya") is an intriguing notion that feels too big and complex for just a minor subplot and which is thus often too reductive to pack in both laughs and character development, the latter a necessity to make audiences care for those on-screen. 

However, outstanding performances go a long way in compensating for this tendency. Viard and Damiens, reunited as a couple after their bickering cross-border act in Dany Boon’s Nothing to Declare, manage to project a lot of warmth despite the fact both have no spoken dialogue and their characters tend to be extremely direct. Gelberg gets a funny if also rather crude subplot involving a cute friend of Paula’s (Roxane Duran, from Breathe), while dark and curly Bergala, as Paula’s love interest, imbues his singing character with a French Darren Criss vibe, even if his pipes aren't quite up to the task.

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The star of the show, however, undeniably is newcomer Emera, a former The Voice France contestant who does her own signing, is extremely natural and for whom it’s practically impossible not to root as an audience. Her Paula's a winner and like her character, she’s clearly got a great career ahead of her if she wants it. 

Production-wise, the film’s in line with other big-budget comedy-dramas from France, with cinematographer Romain Winding keeping things often brightly lit (the story's mostly set during the warmer months, which seems appropriate for its rural setting). The use and absence of sound during a climactic concert sequence is perhaps unsurprising but nonetheless packs a solid emotional punch while at the same time giving hearing viewers an idea of what it must be like to live in a world where not only you can't hear but where you're physically unable to appreciate the talent of your own child.

Production companies: Jerico, Mars Films, France 2 Cinema, Quarante 12 Films, Vendome Production, Nexus Factory

Cast: Karin Viard, Francois Damiens, Louane Emera, Eric Elmosnino, Roxane Duran, Ilian Bergala, Luca Gelberg

Director: Eric Lartigau

Screenplay: Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carre de Malberg, Eric Lartigau, Thomas Bidegain, based on an idea by Bedos

Producers: Eric Jehelmann, Philippe Rousselet, Stephanie Bermann

Director of photography: Romain Winding

Production designer: Olivier Radot

Costume designer: Anne Schotte

Editor: Jennifer Auge

Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine

Casting: Agathe Hassenforder

Sales: SND


No rating, 105 minutes