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La Famille Bélier: my critique of the movie

2014-12-24

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“La Famille Bélier” is presented as a drama comedy. I’ll start with that: I didn’t cry. I didn’t laugh. I did get a tiny lump in my throat for about ten seconds, and I chuckled a couple of times. That much is true.

I can’t tell if anyone cried in the room, but there wasn’t much laughter either. Nonetheless, the movie is already a success, with nearly 700,000 viewers (Fr) in a week.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s chat about the movie itself. In my initial article about La Famille Bélier, I argued about the issues that surround the movie. In part 2, I offered more data for my analysis. Here, I’ll be giving information about what happens in the movie, which means: spoiler alert. I’m not sure how accurate that is, though, because we all know the premise of the movie kind of gives it away from the start.

The plot.

Paula is 16. She lives in a farm with her father, Rodolphe, her mother, Gigi, and her brother, Quentin. The only hearing person in her Deaf family, she helps out her parents with their farm, going to the market to communicate with customers or phoning up suppliers and other clients.

Thing is, after signing up for the choir because a cute boy has done so as well, her music teacher discovers her voice and thinks she should try to get into a school in Paris, so she can blossom and all that jazz.

Oh, drama! She can’t tell her family, because they’re Deaf and it would be a bit like treason. So she hides it from them but it’s rather tricky because her dad has just decided to try and get elected as the mayor because everyone hates the current one and he’s an ableist jerk who says things such as “we’re going to go all the way for the disabled!”. She’s supposed to help out loads with her dad’s campaign, since he can’t help himself (remember he’s Deaf).

Of course, this double life can’t last long and she ends up having to tell her parents. Chaos ensues, culminating in her mother drinking a whole bottle of wine (or at least enough to be drunk) and crying that she’s a bad mother because she was sad her daughter was hearing when she was born. In the time Paula and her parents are not on speaking terms (oh, wait, time for a little joke: on signing terms, ah, ah), her brother always seems happy as a clam (in fact, when she tells them she’d like to go to Paris, his first reaction is to ask whether he can have her room). I’m not surprised, because he even gets to have sex for the first time at some point.

I’ll pass on the whole: the cute boy and Paula stop talking, talk again, then stop talking. Then talk again. Paula’s best friend sleeps around a lot including in her school’s toilet, but at least there isn’t as much slut-shaming as we could have imagined. Oh and the music teacher is a bit of a meanie because he’s frustrated about being in the countryside with a “bunch of idiotic people from the countryside” but he softens a bit from time to time to become an inspirational speaker.

Alright, you got the plot. Now let’s have a look at how Deaf people are portrayed in the movie.

The stereotypes, and glimpses of what the movie could have been.

As would be expected, there are quite a few stereotypes thrown around in the movie. There’s also sparkles of goodness from time to time, which sends mixed messages to the public. That’s a shame because considering how the movie is reported on and the content of interviews, French people really need that movie to make up their mind as to whether or not Deaf people are equal to them or beneath them. (My sarcasm hat is glued to my head today… must be nearly Christmas.)

Yes, I went to the cinema with a notebook and took notes in the dark. I wasn’t very good at writing in the dark though.

To begin with: Deaf people are noisy. I’m not saying no Deaf people are noisy, ever. However, one of the first scenes of the movie is that of the family having breakfast. The noises that the cutlery, plates and family members make are emphasised. The aim is clearly to make us empathise with Paula, who must cope with such a noisy family. Later in the movie, we see her putting loud music on since her parents are having extremely loud sex yet again. How embarrassing! Seriously, though, what’s on with the whole Deaf/noise obsession?

Deaf people are soooo expressive. As suspected, the French Sign Language (though I hesitate to call it that way except in Quentin’s case) used in the movie is… meh. Gigi (aka Karin Viard) is just exaggerating so much it becomes ridiculous. She’s expressive, yes, but her facial expressions really looked fake to me. They just looked like they didn’t belong with what she was saying. By trying to show in her LSF that Gigi is an energetic and exuberant person, it just becomes too much and she ends up just gesticulating around. It’s even more interesting to see the difference with Quentin (aka Luca Gelberg), though he sadly does not have many lines.

Deaf people can’t. When Rodolphe says he wants to try and get elected as the new mayor (with the oh-so-hilarious motto “I hear you”), even his own daughter doesn’t believe he can do it. “You’re Deaf”, she says. That’s the same for people in the village, though they get talked into rallying around him considering that “since he has no chance, we might as well support him I guess”. Paula does change her mind after talking to her dad, and when the current Mayor asks her if her dad really thinks anyone will vote for a Deaf guy, she says “well they did vote for an asshole”. Good one, Paula.

Finally (though I could go on), Deaf people are not the most clever. I got super confused at the scene where Paula has her period for the first time (which she realises while slow dancing with a cute boy, no less). She gets her mum upstairs, tells her she’s bleeding, and the mum takes her trousers and proceeds to go downstairs to show the blood to Paula’s dad, brother… and the boy. I guess maybe, maybe, this scene is part farm-stereotype and part Deaf-stereotype. What Paula says when she realises this, though, is indeed “you suck, being Deaf is not always an excuse”, so while the mum is rather overbearing, it’s not her personality that gets criticised nor the fact that they live in the country.

At the same time, the parents are seen reading TWICE in the movie (and “serious” books at that). They have a successful business (at least when Paula is with them at the market, because when she sends her best friend armed with a tiny bit of LSF they don’t sell anything, remember they’re Deaf). They even drive to Paris on their own at some point! That’s quite a discrepancy to me. Sometimes they seem to be quite regular people (complete with brain and feelings) and sometimes things like that happen.

Another example is that of the scene we see in the trailer: mum is at the market, someone asks a question, and she just smiles with a completely blank face. She also does that when cute boy comes to ask her to go upstairs. It just looks like Deaf people are completely unable to communicate unless there is someone with them to help (when the music teacher comes to speak to them, the parents happily chat away, knowing their daughter is there to interpret).

The potential.

Éric Lartigau has said it (Fr): his aim isn’t to make a documentary. The main topic of the movie is this concept of separation, and how parents cope when their children leave. I was able to identify with Paula on that front, having left “a place no one leaves” for greener pastures when I was 18. I thought that the movie actually dealt alright with this part. If I block out every scene related to what I wrote above and turn the cynic off, I might even say that I didn’t have a bad time.

But even without wanting to make Deaf people THE topic of the movie, it would have been SO DOABLE to sparkle in some extra knowledge. Surely, Lartigau can't have not realised that his movie would be branded as "a window on Deaf people's lives and who they are". Mentioning that the dad doesn’t see himself as disabled and sees being Deaf as an identity, and that the mum wishes her daughter had been born Deaf is not sufficient. Ah but they even showed the light trick Deaf people do to get someone’s attention so surely that’s enough, no? No.

Take interpreting, for example. Paula is seen interpreting for her parents as well as making important phone calls on their behalf. When her dad is interviewed about his candidature to be Mayor, she is angry with him as she has to miss her singing practice (not that he’s aware of that). As a result, while her dad gives lengthy responses to the journalist, she says two-word answers. The dad gets angry and tells the journalist that, surely, she’ll be able to find someone to interpret his answers and he’ll understand her questions if she speaks slowly or writes. He then proceeds to kick his daughter out of the room. I almost got hopeful at that stage, but no. When Paula and her parents are in the middle of a feud, he gets another Deaf man from the village (who is oral and signs) to interpret for him at a public event. Even a one-liner “we live in a remote area and there are no interpreters out and about because there are so few interpreters all over France” (Fr), plus it can be difficult to pay for them would have been better than nothing.

Talking about that other Deaf guy. His name is Mr Rossigneux and the actor who plays him (Bruno Gomila) is Deaf in real life. I couldn’t find much on him so I’m not sure whether he is an LSF user in his everyday life but in the movie he is seen using speech and signs. While Rodolphe Bélier and him do seem to be some kind of friends, Rodolphe criticises him for being oral and for making Deaf people look bad. This would have been a good time to give some background about he and his wife, explaining why he might feel that way. But no, no explanation, and as a result Rodolphe just sounds like he’s quite rude and mean towards that man.

As Paula’s best friend says it: “they’re Deaf, they’re not puppies”, when Paula says she can’t leave them. In spite of this statement, when Rodolphe and Gigi end up accepting their daughter’s decision, there is no showing that they can indeed become autonomous without her. The only one who is presented as such is her brother Quentin, whom Paula says about “he’s strong, he’ll do ok”. This would have been a great opportunity to show that, while Paula’s parents have relied on her a lot (which is indeed believable as they live in a remote area with only one other Deaf person around), they can actually do well without her. Instead, in the few times they are left to their own devices, things tend to go wrong.

The "good".

Ok, I’ll finish with the good(ish). After Paula’s parents accept she will be singing, they come to her school show. During the duo we have awaited for the whole movie as Paula and cute boy couldn’t decide whether they were foe or friends, they cut the sound. They try to show that, while Paula’s parents can feel the emotion in the room through seeing tears rolling off people’s eyes, they cannot feel it themselves as they don’t hear. During that scene (which lasted around a couple of minutes I guess?), three things happened.

1) I was annoyed.
2) People freaked in the room. That’s an exaggeration, but seriously, you could feel the TENSION. Will they put the sound back at some point during the song? What is going to happen?
3) People, made uncomfortable by the lack of sound, started whispering. This is what I heard people say: “that’s so hard” “that is so sad for them”, and “can you imagine for her parents how difficult it must be?”

Deaf pain, no gain.

What happened during the very last time we see Paula sing, though, made this silent scene worth it on some level. After seeing Paula’s parents disorientated while she was singing at school, we saw them beaming and emotional. Why? Because as she sings her song (which is about a child leaving home, incidentally) to the jury to get into the school in Paris, she suddenly starts signing it as well. For that couple of minutes, what I saw was: hey, see, they haven’t lost music, they’ve gained something else. They have French Sign Language. They have something we don’t. I’m not sure if this is how it will have been perceived (and if it was intended to be perceived that way) and it was probably quite a bit of pathos, but I want to see it in a positive light.

Finally, a positive aspect of this movie is that it shows a CODA on screen, which I know has made many of them happy.

Conclusion.

Overall, I would say I do understand why the movie has attracted people. It has all the right ingredients for the Christmas success they want. However, what I perceive as a huge lack of Deaf awareness really ruins the whole thing for me. Fortunately for them, most people disagree and views like mine are apparently radical. If wanting the movie industry to rethink deafness and disability on screen is radical, then so be it.

If you think I’m too harsh and being negative in a non-constructive way, just consider how sexism in movies (and elsewhere) is still very much alive today. Representations of deafness and disability on screen (and elsewhere) are not ahead in the game either. If this movie helps some people shift their perspective and want to learn more, great. But as it is, I seriously doubt it will have any lasting effects beyond some discussions about “the deaf-mutes” around the Christmas table, and how their children are “really deserving of praise”.

Meanwhile, French Deaf children are still being failed and are lacking access to LSF (Fr) as we speak, and French Deaf Art struggles to keep afloat.

If you’d like to understand more about my views, see my initial post about La Famille Bélier on the movie as well as the follow-up post that goes more into detail.

Tags: Deaf, awareness, cinema