'Happy Birthday' ('Fete de famille'): Film Review

Happy Birthday Film Still - Publicity - H 2019
Unifrance/Les Films du Worso
A well-performed, familiar drama.

Catherine Deneuve headlines this French family drama from co-starring actor-director Cedric Kahn.

The French portmanteau word “attachiant” is made up of the words “attachant” and “chiant,” which could be translated as "endearing" and "annoying," respectively. This mix of tenderness and irritation will be familiar to most people who have attended large family gatherings. Pleasantries might be exchanged one minute and one of the nieces or nephews might do something cute or impressive, making everyone feel proud to belong to the clan for a moment. But simmering resentments have a way of resurfacing during these get-togethers, especially after a few drinks. This results in people getting into fights, choosing sides or freaking out when no one chooses theirs. 

The members of the clan depicted in the French drama Happy Birthday (Fete de famille) are practically all attachiants, as we get to see them from their best and worst sides during the summertime birthday of materfamilias Andrea, played by Catherine Deneuve. She has summoned her children and grandchildren for an alfresco lunch and a candlelit dinner, though there’s still more than enough downtime for everyone to get into car accidents, fights and to possibly have a mental breakdown.

Actor-director Cedric Kahn’s latest film, which premiered Sept. 4 in France and will have its festival bow in London, is certainly familiar, but in the comforting-irritating ways that family gatherings can be. By the end of Happy Birthday, viewers might feel they know these flawed characters almost as well as their own family members. 

Happy Birthday is almost entirely set in the sumptuous if somewhat crumbling family mansion. When the film opens, Vincent (Kahn, directing himself for the first time) arrives with his wife Marie (Laetitia Colombani) and their two young boys (Milan Hatala, Solal Ferreira Dayan). Already sur place are not only Andrea and her partner Jean (Alain Artur), but also Andrea’s teenage granddaughter, Emma (Luana Bajrami), who lives with them, and Emma’s boyfriend, Julien (Joshua Rosinet), who loves to play the old family piano. Also coming for the party is Vincent’s childless — and occasionally childish — brother, Romain (Vincent Macaigne), who has brought his new Argentinean flame, Rosita (Isabel Aime Gonzalez-Sola). 

The only person missing for the planned lunch under the trees in the garden is third sibling Claire (Emmanuelle Bercot), who is also Emma’s mother. She left for the U.S. three years earlier and hasn’t really been in touch since. Except dark clouds start to gather, Claire suddenly calls and Vincent is tasked with picking up his sister from the station, where she’s waiting with all her belongings in the pouring rain. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that her dramatic entrance is vintage Claire; she doesn’t seem to plan all that far ahead and likes being the center of attention. 

But Kahn, who wrote the screenplay with Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux, turns Claire into a more complex figure than just a careless and difficult mother, sister and daughter. In fact, Emma’s mom seems to be suffering from mental health issues, though there’s some dispute over the extent of her problems. The reason for this is because Claire’s inheritance — she’s not the child of Jean but of a previous lover of Andrea’s — is tied up in the certainly-too-large home in which Andrea, Jean and Emma now live. As outsider Rosita perceptively suggests, it would be awfully convenient for some if Claire’s desire to access her money could be ignored on account of her mental health. But it is hard to discount the argument that the very least Claire could have done while she disappeared for three years was to leave Emma and her caretakers with a roof over their heads. As is often the case in family disputes, there’s a sense both sides are at least a little right. 

Besides Claire’s issues, there’s also a near-constant clash between Vincent and Romain, the former a hard-working man who follows all the rules and the latter a layabout who has vague artistic ideas and a new girlfriend every week and believes his country bumpkin family will never understand the art that he makes. The penniless Romain also believes that his brother’s money will get him out of trouble should he ever need it, which drives Vincent mad. Bercot and Macaigne have more room to go big and do so convincingly; Kahn is the subdued man on the sidelines in the most underwritten of the three sibling roles.

As Andrea, Deneuve is probably the person most like Vincent, though her efforts to keep the family together at all costs come more clearly from a place of love than a place of logic and a sense of justice. Her affection for Bercot’s mentally fragile character is especially touching, and their rapport is surprisingly complex even as it slowly emerges that Andrea isn’t perfect, either. There’s a short scene in which Claire reveals she has a racist side (Julien, her daughter’s boyfriend, is black). As at several other moments, Andrea doesn’t quite manage to impose her will and here she doesn’t outright condemn Claire’s racism. But she defends Julien and makes it clear his race is of no importance to her at all. Was it the perfect response to the situation? Perhaps not. But with tact and humanity, this materfamilias has still calmed the waters. As usual, Deneuve’s actorly instincts are extremely precise, down to her smallest gesture.

The screenwriters use several other filters that create some distance, with Romain having been commissioned to make a documentary of sorts about family, which he shoots over the course of the day, and Emma putting on a play with her cousins in which the characters’ names are the same as those of her family members. While the film idea comes off as somewhat artificial and an epilogue with footage from his DIY project has no clear function, the play feels organic and isn’t too on-the-nose even as it helps deepen our understanding of Emma’s difficult relationship with her unpredictable mother.

Until a late-night dinner in act three, Kahn and cinematographer Yves Cape (who also shot Kahn’s The Prayer and Wild Life) prefer medium close-ups and close-ups rather than wide shots, suggesting how each family is composed of different individuals that are all part of a single, larger whole. This is perhaps the central paradox of families and the source of so much strife. Endearing and annoying, indeed.

Production companies: Les films du Worso, France 2 Cinema, Tropdebonheur Productions, Scope Pictures
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Bercot, Vincent Macaigne, Cedric Kahn, Luana Bajrami, Laetitia Colombani, Isabel Aime Gonzalez-Sola, Alain Artur, Joshua Rosinet, Milan Hatala, Solal Ferreira Dayan
Director: Cedric Kahn
Screenwriters: Cedric Kahn, Fanny Burdino, Samuel Doux
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Aude Cathelin
Director of cinematography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
Editor: Yann Dedet 
Casting: Antoine Carrard
Sales: Elle Driver

In French, English
101 minutes