The Bélier Family

January 6, 2016
Louane Emera in 'The Bélier Family' (2015)
Louane Emera in 'The Bélier Family' (2015)

For a people convinced of their intellectual superiority over the rest of the planet, the French have an incurable fondness for low-brow comedy and feel-good stories. Perhaps they’re just like us, after all.

This year’s box office smash in France was La Famille Bélier, a comedy, like The Intouchables (2011) that finds humour and inspiration in a disability. Dairy farmers, Rodolphe and Gigi Bélier (Francois Damiens and Karin Viard) are deaf, as is their young son, Quentin (Luca Gelberg). The one fully-abled Bélier is 15-year-old daughter, Paula (Louana Emera), who acts as the ears of the family.

This puts a lot of pressure on a girl when she is yearning to be accepted by her peers, and starting to think fondly of the opposite sex. While Paula is shy and studious, her best friend, Mathilde (Roxane Duran), is promiscuous. Yet we are not expected to see Paula as the good girl and Mathilde as bad. It’s a lifestyle choice, as Tony Abbott might have said.

Mathilde could hardly be more of a sex maniac than Rodolphe and Gigi, who can’t keep their hands off each other. This may imply that deafness is good for one’s virility, but it’s an embarrassment for Paula, who feels that everyone at school has taken notice of her weird parents. Just to drive the message home, Rodolphe comes to fetch her with the stereo on his van turned all the way up.

The noisiness and disinhibition of the family is a running gag. They make ghastly sounds at the dinner table, and get worked up over the slightest things. Their daughter’s revenge is to call them “losers” and similar insults that they can’t hear.

One of the things driving Rodolphe berserk is the incompetence and corruption of the local mayor. He decides the only solution is to run for office himself, with the slogan: “I Hear You”. This means Paula must translate her father’s speeches and interviews – a task she finds no less onerous than translating details of their sex lives with the gynaecologist.

At school, Paula has decided to join the choir, largely because she has a crush on a cute boy named Gabriel (Ilian Bergala), who is a star singer. The music master, Monsieur Thomasson (Eric Elnosnino), is one of those violently sarcastic, sharp-tongued teachers with a secret heart of gold. I’m not sure the type exists outside of the movies, especially today, when such personalities would be sent off for counselling.

The other reason M. Thomasson might invite treatment is his overwhelming passion for the songs of veteran French crooner, Michel Sardou, which are the only things he will allow his students to sing.

When M. Thomasson discovers that Paula has a stunning voice he arranges for her to sing a duet with Gabriel, and tries to convince her to apply to enter a famous musical academy in Paris.

Things are now moving very fast for Paula, who is unable to tell her parents about this opportunity. How do you break the news to your deaf family that you want to be a singer? She allows them to think she is seeing her ‘boyfriend’, when she and Gabriel are attending rehearsals at M. Thomasson’s place. These parents would be more comfortable with the idea that their teenage daughter was having sex, rather than singing.

The subterfuge has a disastrous ending, bringing heartache and trauma, but we know – with absolute certainty – there is a bright, heartwarming conclusion on the way. Perhaps if Jean-Luc Godard had been the director, Paula might have fallen prey to the false consciousness induced by a capitalist system in decline, but Eric Lartigau only wants viewers to walk out with a smile on their faces.

Newcomer, Emera, puts in a solid performance, but Damiens and Viard steal the show. These two experienced comic actors seem to relish playing the deaf parents, although some viewers may wonder whether they are being asked to laugh with or at the condition. When Rodolphe signs defiantly: “Being deaf isn’t a handicap, it’s an identity”, he’s pushing for a positive interpretation. There was, however, a furious article by a deaf writer in The Guardian last December, that labelled the film “demeaning and depressing”.

It’s impossible to imagine how such a film might strike someone who has been deaf from birth, but I suspect many would see The Bélier Family as a good thing. In Australia the movie is being pushed as a Christmas holiday special, with the slogan: “This Christmas, Love is All You Need.” Hearing, presumably, is not necessary. No matter how one feels about such sentiments, it is much easier to be mildly amused by the Béliers than it is to love the Coopers.

The Bélier Family
Directed by Eric Lartigau
Written by Eric Lartigau & Thomas Bidegain from a scenario by Victoria Bedos
Starring Louane Emera, Francois Damiens, Karin Viard, Luca Gelberg, Eric Elmosnino, Roxane Duran, Ilian Bergala
France/Belgium, rated M, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd January, 2016.