Familiar Ground: Berlin Review

Quebecois comedy of unease and unhappiness finds laughter in the dark.

Stephane Lafleur's second French-Canadian feature stars Francis La Haye and Sylvain Marcel

BERLIN -- (Forum) As its unassuming title suggests, French-Canadian slow-burner Familiar Ground (En terrains connus) doesn’t seek to push back any cinematic boundaries. But while droll, observationally bittersweet comedies about dysfunctional suburban families have for years been a staple of the film-festival circuit, it’s still a pleasure to see a writer/director unearthing fresh humor and pathos down such well-trodden paths.

Thanks to the likes of Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and Denis Côté (Curling), Québécois cinema is currently enjoying a rare spell in the international spotlight, which won’t harm the prospects of this second feature by Stéphane Lafleur (after 2007’s Continent — A Film Without Guns.) Low-key, bittersweet, but punctuated with several genuinely amusing episodes, this is a gently reflective affair which will find favor with international festival audiences but has few commercial prospects outside Canada.

Lafleur’s subject-matter -- the dissatisfactions and depressions of a less-than-intimate brother and sister -- could easily have turned into a downbeat, tragic drama. His achievement is to balance his story’s light and dark elements, so that even as we sympathize with the misfortunes of thirtysomething Maryse (Mallett) and Benoît (La Haye), there’s usually an element of wry humor that prevents proceedings from becoming excessively morose.

Five years have elapsed since their mother’s death, and we sense that mama was a key force in holding her family together. Introspective Maryse is losing patience with husband Alain (Sylvain Marcel), while younger brother Benoît is living at home -- and endlessly feuding -- with his cantankerous, ailing father (Michel Daigle).

We switch between brother and sister’s stories, until the four principals come together for a hilariously awkward dinner. This is prelude to a road-trip taken by Benoît and Maruse, during which they edge towards reconciliation.

Though set in humdrum reality, with close attention paid to banal domestic details -- Lafleur elicits laughs with a simple cut to an overhead glass lampshade -- Familiar Ground reveals something of a whimsically metaphysical aspect. This is most startlingly achieved through the sudden arrival of a self-proclaimed Man from the Future (Houle), who imparts to an unfazed Benoît news of an impending bereavement.

This ties in with the screenplay’s structure, built around a trio of pre-announced (via title-card) “accidents” which add an ominous undertone to innocent events. As well as crafting a pair of character-studies, Lafleur thus also unfussily addresses issues of free will: the extent to which we’re in charge of our own fates or are helpless passengers heading to an inevitable destination. Weighty stuff for a small-scale enterprise, but the construction proves sufficiently sound - and the performances sufficiently strong - to shoulder the burden.

Ethereal synthesizer music from Swedish duo Sagor & Swing adds welcome gradations of texture, likewise Lafleur and cinematographer Sara Mishara’s subtle deployment of zoom effects.


Cast: Francis La Haye, Fanny Mallette, Sylvain Marcel, Michel Daigle, Suzanne Lemoine, Denis Houle.
 Production company: Micro_scope.
 Director: Stéphane Lafleur.
 Screenwriters: Stéphane Lafleur, Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne.
 Producers: Luc Déry, Kim McCraw.
 Executive producer: François Reid.
 Director of photography: Sara Mishara.
 Production designer: André-Line Beauparlant.
 Music: Sagor & Swing.
 Costume designer: Sophie Lefebvre.
 Editor: Sophie Leblond.
 Sales: Entertainment One, Toronto.
 No rating, 88 minutes.