‘Daddy or Mommy’ (‘Papa ou maman’): Film Review

Mommy or Daddy Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Thibault Grabherr

Mommy or Daddy Still - H 2014

Concept beats out content in this racy but uneven family affair

The writers behind French hit “What’s in a Name?” offer up a new high-concept comedy

Ever since American expat journalist Pamela Druckerman published her chronicle Bringing Up Bebe two years ago, the French have been praised for miraculous parenting practices that yield droves of obedient and well-mannered children. While some of the book’s claims may be true – especially when applied to elites living in the center of Paris – they’re almost entirely refuted in the new Gallic comedy Daddy or Mommy (Papa ou maman), a film that features three of the brattiest kids and two of the lousiest parents seen in recent cinema. High on concept and somewhat lower on content, this debut effort from Martin Bourboulon was penned by powerhouse screenwriters Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere (What’s in a Name?, Nobody from Nowhere), ensuring it a decent local rollout in early February. Overseas potential may be best served by a remake.

An opening flashback – filmed in one long, winding take – follows medical student, Vincent Leroy (Laurent Lafitte), and girlfriend, Florence (Marina Fois), as they fight and frolic toward a New Year’s Eve embrace. A few decades later, they still seem to be getting along grandly – so much so that they’ve agreed to amicably divorce and start new lives. All that’s left is to break the news to their spoiled children: the prankster teen, Mathias (Alexandre Desrousseaux), the awkward tween, Emma (Anna Lemarchand) and the geeky younger bro, Julien (Achille Potier).

While that task proves tougher than imagined, things get much more complicated when Vincent is offered a humanitarian gig in Haiti, while Florence is promoted to head up a construction project in Denmark. Now, instead of agreeing to share custody, they leave it to their kids to decide whom they want to live with, doing everything in their power to make them pick the other parent. It’s sort of like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in reverse and remixed by Todd Phillips, with the remainder of the film devoted to scenes of dad and mom doing horrible things to their progeny.

Some of those sequences are fun in a boundary-testing way, such as when Florence shows up at a party with Emma and proceeds to booty bop in a miniskirt with her daughter's 12-year-old boyfriend. Another scene has Vincent forcing his children to observe a C-section until one of them passes out in the operating room. At a time when “helicopter parenting” has become the norm in parts of the West, it’s satisfying to see such an irreverent take on the subject, with Florence and Vincent acting like two Black Hawks targeting their own kids.

But the concept also has its limits, especially with a central couple that’s way too egocentric to be credible, and seem to merit much worse than the third act bestows upon them. Delaporte and de la Patelliere are trying to have their cake and eat it too here, wringing laughs out of their characters’ inherent awfulness and then expecting us to do a 180° turn, suddenly cheering for them in what turns out to be yet another take on the “remarriage comedy” genre made famous by philosopher Stanley Cavell.

Despite an ultimate lack of credibility, Daddy or Mommy is nonetheless efficient (at only 82 minutes) and smoothly directed, with Bourbolon and DP Laurent Dailland (Haute Cuisine) keeping a lively pace as the camera tracks the Leroys through one disaster after another. Lafitte (Elle l’adore) and Fois (Polisse) are both comic veterans who know how to move fast across the frame, and they give quick-witted physical performances that make this film edgier than your typical chatty French farce, even if things wind up sliding off the rails.

An upbeat score by Jerome Rebotier (Nobody from Nowhere) helps keep a fluid pace, while the David Bowie hit “Modern Love” is used a few times to both situate the action and narrate the shenanigans that may bring mommy and daddy back together at last.

Production companies: Chapter 2, Nexus Factory, Pathe, M6 Films, Jouror Films, Fargo Films, Umedia
Cast: Laurent Lafitte, Marina Fois, Judith El Zein, Michael Abiteboul, Vanessa Guide, Michel Vuillermoz, Alexandre Desrousseaux, Anna Lemarchand, Archille Potier
Director: Martin Bourboulon
Screenwriters: Matthieu Delaporte, Alexandre de la Patelliere, based on an original scenario by Guillaume Clicquot
Producers: Dimitri Rassam, Alexandre de la Patelliere
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Stephane Taillason
Costume designer: Anne Schotte
Editor: Virginie Bruant
Composer: Jerome Rebotier
Sales: Pathe International

No rating, 82 minutes