‘Families’ (‘Belles familles’): TIFF Review

Families Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A lively if familiar French farce carried by an adrenalized cast.  

Mathieu Amarlic stars in this new comedy from 'Cyrano de Bergerac' director Jean-Paul Rappeneau.

As French as a baguette smothered in camembert cheese, wearing a beret and chainsmoking a pack of Gitanes, Families (Belles familles) is a broadly entertaining if rather conventional return to the scene for director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, whose last feature was the 2003 wartime drama Bon Voyage. A pure family farce in the comedie de boulevard tradition, but one that’s amped up by tons of energy and a hardworking ensemble cast – toplined by the always watchable Mathieu Amalric – this is the kind of middlebrow Gallic comedy that foreign audiences could easily lap up, indulging in their fantasies of attractive Frenchmen beset by amorous woes and sizeable inheritances.

Following the travails of Shanghai-based businessman, Jerome Varenne (Amalric), who stops through Paris en route to London with his new Chinese girlfriend, Chen-Lin (Gemma Chan), only to find himself caught in a maelstrom of legal and personal troubles involving a family mansion in the quiet provincial burb of Ambray, the film kicks off at top speed and never stops moving, with the 83-year-old Rappeneau zipping through scenes as if he were Usain Bolt adapting a classic vaudeville play by Georges Feydeau.

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When Jerome is coerced by his mother (Nicole Garcia) to head to Ambray and deal with his late father's estate, which is tangled up in a dispute between a bullish real estate developer, Piaggi (Gilles Lellouche), and the town mayor (Andre Dusssollier), he quickly learns there was much more to his dad than he imagined.

Firstly, and predictably, Jerome’s old man had a semi-secret relationship with a nurse (Karin Viard) at his clinic, spending his last years with her and the woman’s gorgeous young daughter, Louise (Marine Vacth), in his massive 19th century chateau. As the rules of farce dictate, Louise also happens to be the girlfriend of Piaggi, who also happens to be Jerome’s childhood buddy. Further rules state that, even if Jerome seems happy at first with his new Asian squeeze, he will most certainly fall for Louise, throwing a major monkey wrench into the whole affair.

Rappeneau and co-writers Philippe Le Guay (The Women on the 6th Floor) and Julien Rappeneau (My Way) find clever ways to dish out plot details early on, playing off various quid pro quos between the half-dozen characters and offering up plenty of opportunities for the actors to shout, scratch and choke one another, in scenes that sometimes border on cartoonish. But the liveliness of the direction and the energetic performances make it all extremely easy to watch, and there are some vintage moments involving Amarlic, Viard and the excellent Vacth, who convincingly changes gears after debuting in Francois Ozon’s racy 2013 drama, Young & Beautiful.

The film heads in both predictable and surprising directions, though it will come as a shock to no one that things will inevitably work themselves out. The last act is a bit over-the-top in this regard – especially the way in which the filmmakers deal with Chen-Lin – as is an epilogue that’s way too overtly gushy, with Martin Rappeneau’s score thundering towards an upbeat finale that tries to leave everyone satisfied.

So polished looking that it could have come straight from the car wash, the cinematography by Luc Besson regular Thierry Arbogast employs oodles of colorful Steadicam to track the cast members from one quandary to the next. Rappeneau also pays special attention to background effects of rushing trains, racing cars and honking horns, as if the entire world had been sucked into the whirlpool of the Varenne family misfortune.

The original French title, Belles familles, is a pun that means both “beautiful families” in an ironic sense, and “step-families” in the sense of Jerome’s ever-expanding kinships. 

Production companies: ARP, TF1 Films Production
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Marine Vacth, Gilles Lellouche, Nicole Garcia, Karin Viard
Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Screenwriters: Jean-Paul Rappeneau, in collaboration with Philippe Le Guay and Julien Rappeneau, based on an original idea by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and Jacques Fieschi
Producers: Michele Petin, Laurent Petin
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Costume designer: Camille Janbon
Editor: Veronique Lange
Composer: Martin Rappeneau
Casting director: Antoinette Boulat
Sales agent: TF1 International

No rating, 113 minutes