In C’est La Vie (La Baule-les-Pins), it’s Lyon 1958, and it’s time for 8 year-old Sophie (Candice Le France) and 13-year-old Frédérique’s (Julie Bataille) annual holiday to Brittany. But this year, something’s wrong. The children’s father, Michel (Michael Berry) isn’t joining the family right away, and then the children’s attractive mother, Lena (Nathalie Baye) pulls a shabby bait-and-switch at the train station. She goes on to Paris alone while the girls are taken to Brittany in the company of their nanny, Odette (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The only one who seems happy with this arrangement is Lena, and she waves goodbye to her sobbing children. This holiday is going to be different.
Poor Odette, who has two children of her own, has complete charge of Sophie and Frédérique. The rented house turns out to be a disappointment, and the children sensing, but not fully understanding, the implication of their parents’ separation, misbehave whenever they can. Luckily Lena’s sister Bella (Zabou Breitman), her husband Léon (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and their four children provide some stability and normalcy for their two cousins. Then Lena arrives to rescue Odette and it becomes clear that Lena has a lover, a much younger sculptor named Jean-Claude (Vincent Lindon).
While the adults are supposed to provide structure and routine, we see how things begin to disintegrate once that fragile membrane of parental attention is removed. Bella and Léon’s large colourful family life is shown in contrast to the miserable marriage of Lena and Michel. Léon is one of those fathers who has a definite persona as a family man. He tries–even if he doesn’t always succeed, and he seems hardest on his eldest son, Daniel (Alexis Derlon). Both Bella and Léon try to remain neutral about Michel and Lena’s divorce until they’re finally forced to choose sides.
C’est La Vie does a marvellous job of showing the parallel world of the children in contrast to the world of adults. Just as the children have no clue about the impending divorce between Lena and Michel (until they overhear the news), the adults are largely excluded from the children’s world as they run amok and wage class warfare against Club Corvette–a club for paying child members which excludes them. While the adults are often clueless about the children’s escapades, Frédérique has an unsettling glimpse into adult relationships. The film shows the conflicts of the individual who must choose between desire and family responsibility, and we even see how animals are inevitably impacted by the vagaries and instability of adults.
Films which take a child’s view of adult problems are not always successful, but C’est la Vie hits just the right note of innocence and mischievousness, and all the characters are very well-drawn including the landlord, Ruffier (Didier Bénureau) who watches the shenanigans with barely veiled disgust and dismay. Director Diane Kurys presents this difficult summer with delicate sensitivity and more than a dash of humour. Anyway, C’est La Vie is a delightful film which keys into one of my pet theories that family problems are magnified by a holiday. Take family members out of their routine and throw them together, and if there are problems, a holiday will accentuate them. Perhaps this explains why I have a weakness for films that show people on holiday.