French film review: ‘La Famille Bélier’
It’s the film that France couldn’t stop talking about, and for good reason. ‘La Famille Bélier’ (‘The Bélier Family’) has been a box-office hit since its release over Christmas last year, and now that it’s hit Australian shores for the Alliance Française French Film Festival, we can’t help talking about it either!
The film follows the life of a farming family in Normandy, who are all deaf except for 16-year-old Paula. When forced to choose co-curricular activities for school, Paula notices un beau garçon signing up for choir, and impulsively follows suit. With a reluctance to participate, and a lack of respect for the overly dramatic singing teacher, Paula is surprised to discover that she is an exceptionally gifted singer.
But for the young teen, the idea of abandoning her family and pursuing a star career is unimaginable. She is her parents’ reliable translator: sweet-talking customers into purchasing their home-grown produce at the local market, liaising with suppliers over the phone between school bells and even helping out with her dad’s campaign to run for mayor and represent disabled groups in the community.
Comedy in unexpected places
Director Eric Lartigau treats us to an exceptional screenplay that combines relatable humour with an exposure to what it might be like to live with a disability. We admire Paula, but empathise with her too.
She is wise beyond her years, and we have to remind ourselves that the responsibilities she takes on board are coupled with the everyday struggles of teenage life. We watch on as Paula navigates the scary, unchartered territory of puberty and laugh at how her family can’t help but unintentionally humiliate her.
In the opening scene, Paula dutifully accompanies her parents to a doctor’s appointment, innocently unaware of the embarrassing accounts to which she must bear witness. Then there’s her younger brother, Quentin, who is hilariously intrigued by the sexual world and happy to uncover it whenever he can. And don’t get us started on the scene where the beau garçon visits the Béliers for rehearsal practice!
Elsewhere, there’s Eric Elmosnino who plays the drama queen of a singing instructor. Peppered with a Michel Sardou-heavy soundtrack, his hyperbolic criticism of the choir’s lack of talent is a consistent laugh reel.
Deaf community exposure
The beauty of the story lies in the approach it takes to educate a hearing audience on the challenges faced by the deaf community. While that approach might be through comedy and misconstrued wit the majority of the time, there are moments of touching realisation that make the film so enjoyable. Yes, ‘La Famille Bélier’ toys with the unimaginative irony that a deaf family will never be able to appreciate the singing prowess of their hearing child.
But as most viewers will be fortunate enough to hear the film, they will appreciate a touching scene where the sound is muted at a pivotal point in the storyline. It is incredibly effective – every soul in the jam-packed cinema came to the joint realisation that we are incredibly blessed to be able to hear, everything from sarcastic tone to birdsong.
Throughout the entire film there are directorial decisions made to remind us that we take our hearing for granted. We see how the Bélier family deals with discrimination, or how they get the attention of somebody who has their back turned away. We might think techniques like flickering a lamp on and off or stamping one’s feet on the ground are clever, but quickly realise they’re employed nonchalantly, much like a whistle or snapping of fingers.
In France, ‘La Famille Bélier’ was a critical success, being nominated for multiple Césars, and winning the Salamandre d’or (Audience Award) in 2014.
Louane Emera, who plays Paula, is particularly impressive. After reaching the semi-finals on the second season of ‘The Voice: la plus belle voix’, she was discovered by Lartigau. She learned to sign LSF and made her acting debut with ‘La Famille Bélier’, where she also won ‘Most Promising Actress’ at the 40th César Awards.
However, not everyone was happy with the film. The deaf community in particular found it to be inaccurate, falsely depicting their culture. Deaf journalist Rebecca Atkinson’s in-depth analysis, published in The Guardian, stood out amidst a sea of positive reviews. Her critique condemns the use of French comedy giants, such as Karin Viard and François Damiens who play Paula’s parents, in place of deaf actors. While Luca Gelberg and Bruno Gomila, both deaf, feature in the film, Atkinson highlights that the language was butchered so much that many had to read the subtitles to understand the signing.
Others disagree with her. While some critics believe the way the French hearing actors exaggerated their facial expressions was unrealistic, some deaf reviewers felt otherwise. Quoted in The Independent, Viguen Shirvanian said, “I found François Damiens especially to be astonishingly believable in his gestures. There is nothing shocking in casting non-deaf actors. Did anyone complain when François Cluzet played a paraplegic in ‘Intouchables’?”
See if it lives up to the claims yourself at the Alliance Française French Film Festival!
Have you seen ‘La Famille Bélier’? What did you think of it? Did it do justice to the deaf community? We’d love to hear your thoughts below!
Catch up on everything the French Film Festival has to offer:
Proud partner of the Alliance Française de Melbourne. Images courtesy of the Alliance Française French Film Festival.