Viper in the Fist (2004)

“Birth is a lottery.”

The French film, Viper in the Fist (Vipere au Poing)is the delightful film adaptation of the novel by Herve Bazin. It’s the childhood tale of a French boy and begins in 1926 with brothers Jean (Jules Sitruk) and Freddie (William Touil) living with their wheelchair bound grandmother in her chateau. The boys’ parents are in Indochina, and they are just a faded memory to their two sons. When the film begins, it’s Xmas Eve, and it’s a wonderful, traditional time of year for the Rezeau boys.

Life changes, however, for the worst, with the arrival of the boys’ parents Jacques (Jacques Villeret) and Paule Rezeau (Catherine Frot). While the boys have an idealized image of a beautiful, soft, perfumed mother, their illusions are instantly shattered by reality. Paule, quickly nicknamed “Freakso” by the boys, is devoid of any maternal feeling whatsoever and rules the home with an iron fist–locking up the butter and the chocolate, doling out food, removing the boys from the relative freedom that boarding school offers, and arbitrarily punishing her sons for any perceived infraction of her insane rules. She also refuses to allow the chateau to be converted to electricity. While her stinginess is at the root of this decision, Paule argues “the mad dash for progress is bad for your soul.”

While the older son accepts and knuckles under, it is Jean, the son who is most like his mother, who proves to be the ultimate rebel. Jean is a determined little boy who fights back against his mother’s tyranny in the most unexpected ways, developing guileful strategies in his war against his mother.

The tone of Viper in the Fist is reminiscent of the Disney film Holes–children in a peculiar adult world coping with adverse circumstances. It’s not exactly a film for young children (there’s one scene involving a bird that is unacceptable), but older children should enjoy it. There’s a marvelous degree of eccentricity throughout the film–Jean’s father, who confesses that he’s “never had to earn a living” collects flies–often interrupting meals to grab another item for his collection. “The ritual of meals” is Paule’s “favorite theatre of bossiness and carping.” It’s a time when the children must be on their best behaviour while they wait for her to lash out.

This is a wonderful tale of a bad childhood–laced with sentimentality and a touch of whimsy, but it all works delightfully well–thanks in a large part to the spectacular performance of the marvelous Catherine Frot. Frot is normally typecast in sweet, demure, passive roles, so her role as the parsimonious, frustrated and vicious Paule is a complete change of pace. This is a world in which physical punishment was accepted as a natural aspect of child-rearing, so there are a couple of scenes with Paule going berserk a la Joan Crawford, but for the most part, while the film depicts a rotten childhood, there are enough humorous safety nets built into the story to ensure an overwhelmingly positive tale. Jean inevitably grows stronger through adversity. Directed by Philippe de Broca, Viper in the Fist is in French with English subtitles.

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