Tag Archives: dysfunctional families

Familia (2005)

The Canadian film Familia from director Louise Archambault appears to begin its focus with divorced, single parent Michèle (Sylvie Moreau). A brief glimpse of Michèle’s gambling addiction and a short encounter with her current steroid-selling boyfriend/boss, Scott (Claude Despins) illustrate a life of failure, irresponsibility and flux. Unfortunately, Michèle’s bad decisions pour down on to her 14-year-old daughter, Marguerite (Mylène St-Saveur). A confrontation between Michèle and her latest boyfriend results in yet another midnight flit with Michèle and Marguerite’s few belongings stuffed into the car, and what doesn’t fit in the car is tied onto the roof.

Time to hit the road… Michèle, a part-time aerobics instructor, would really like to start afresh in California, but she needs money to fund this make-over. Off to mum’s to plead for cash, but Madeleine (Micheline Lanctôt) doesn’t have any to spare and seems fairly oblivious to Michèle’s dilemma. No matter, Madeleine’s much younger husband, (Jacques L’Heureux) lusts after Michèle, and he’s perfectly happy to offer some cash in exchange for a grope.

Michèle doesn’t make it to California and ends up on the doorstep of childhood friend Janine (Macha Grenon), and here’s where the family dynamics begin to get complicated. Janine is the sister of Marguerite’s father who was married to someone else when he impregnated Michèle. The complicated layers of deceit, self-deceit, and irresponsibility peel back as various family members appear on the scene, and the film raise the old nature vs nature question through its portrayals of three-generations of troubled characters.

As the film plays out, its focus shifts to Janine, nicknamed Hitler by her 13-year-old daughter Gabrielle (Juliette Gosselin),  Janine, a successful interior decorator runs a tight ship at her immaculate home and naturally and foreseeably, Michèle’s presence and influence wreaks havoc in Janine’s formerly orderly home. Unfortunately, Janine has too many distractions to see it coming. With her husband Charles (Vincent Graton) largely absent, Janine has good reasons to suspect him of infidelity.

When the multiple crises erupt, the film takes a step back from Michèle’s disastrous choices and Janine’s painful suspicions and takes a look at the larger family picture here. Janine’s mother, Estelle (Patricia Nolin), is a cold fish who believes that all problems can be successfully avoided through shopping while Michèle’s mother desperately tries to stay younger in order to keep her repulsive husband interested. By stepping back and taking a look at this older generation, Michèle and Janine begin to make a lot more sense–and by that I don’t mean that they were inconsistent characters, but rather their backgrounds explain their adult choices. 

And since the film takes a look at the older generation, it’s balanced by taking a look at the choices made by Gabrielle and Marguerite. Once again, these two young girls are very much influenced by their mothers, and in one poignant scene Michèle, who manages to largely ignore her daughter, asks Marguerite what she wants out of life. Marguerite replies that it’s very simple–she wants to not be like her mother. 

On the down side, the film comes dangerously close to condemning the entire male species–with the sole exception of Marguerite’s grandfather who seems the most stable of the bunch. However, that complaint aside, ultimately Familia, a highly entertaining film offers believable flawed characters caught in various economic and social dilemmas for which there are no easy answers, and we see generations of women paying for the mistakes and the irresponsibility of their parents. By the time, the film concludes, we see the characters overcoming patterns of behaviour, and one scene which includes Janine and her ever-disappearing husband has to be one of the best melt-down scenes ever made.

Familia, a Canadian film, is mostly in French, and it’s an entry into Caroline and Richard’s world cinema series 


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C’est La Vie (1990)

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.

This post is part of Caroline’s and Richard’s World Cinema blogathon. Trust me, the film is much better than the DVD cover indicates.


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Up and Down (2004)

“A person takes risks like this to visit Thailand and eat deep fried bat.”

After recently watching and really enjoying Beauty in Trouble a Czech film from director Jan Hrebejk, I decided to track down more films from this director. This led me to Up and Down (Horem Padem), a wonderful film that explores modern Czech life through a handful of diverse characters.

The film begins with a truck full of illegal aliens being taken across the Czech border by a couple of moronic traffickers. Obviously bored to tears with what appears to be a fairly regular back-and-forth trip, the traffickers amuse themselves by discussing foods from various countries. After a close call at a border crossing, the truck passes into Czechoslovakia where the aliens are unceremoniously dumped in a forest. In their haste to dump the aliens, however, the traffickers leave a baby in the back of the truck, and discover their tiny contraband miles later. While one man wants to abandon the baby in the snow, the other one, cradles the baby to his torso. But lest we think this means the man has a shred of humanity, he doesn’t. He takes the baby to a pawn shop and there the owners conceive of selling the baby on the black market.

Enter childless couple Miluska (Natasa Burger) and her burly, ex-con, security guard husband, Frantisek Fikes (Jiri Machacek). Miluska (Mila)  tries stealing a baby but that doesn’t work, and so she buys one instead. It seems like a reasonable solution to her.

The theft of the baby is tentatively connected to another Czech family–although the connection isn’t apparent at first. Martin (Petr Forman) who now lives in Australia, returns to Czechoslovakia after decades of absence when he gets the news that his estranged father, professor Oto Horecky (Jan Trsika) has a brain tumor. This brings Martin’s hostile, alcoholic mother Vera (Emilia Vasaryova) into direct communication and conflict with her husband. He now lives with a much younger woman, immigrant advocate Hana (Ingrid Timkova)  and they have a teenage daughter, Lenka (Kristyna Bokova) together. This union is particularly bitter to Vera (“an old Russian translator with a substantial Czech beer habit“) as she lives in a tiny cramped apartment in an impoverished area while her estranged husband managed to reacquire the gracious home they once owned together.

As these characters move Up and Down within Czech society, the  film follows their lives with tale with irony and biting wit. There’s professor Oto who teaches about the Czech diaspora, and he is directly responsible for the breakup and emigration of his son to Australia. To Vera, her husband Oto is a like a phoenix “always rising from the scorched earth around him with fluffy new feathers.” And the fluffy new feathers in this case is a direct insult to Oto’s younger, attractive common-law wife.  This is just one of the places that the idea of Up and Down comes in. Vera’s fortunes have plummeted while Oto has done well; his family has borne the consequences of his actions while he’s emerged unscathed.

Martin, who’s been away from his family and Czechoslovakia for a long, long time arrives only to rush slap bang into racism, crime and the suffocation of a family in which the parents still squabble and demand he takes sides. The scenes in Australia present such a contrast–the New World vs the Old. Open spaces and mixed society vs. cramped flats and racism. No wonder it’s taken Martin such a long time to come back for a visit.

But by far the best sections of this lively film contain soccer fan Frantisek. he suffers from a cleft palate, is none too bright, and he’s led into trouble by the violent, racist “Colonel” (Jaroslav Dusek)–another soccer fanatic who demands loyalty, obedience, and the proper homage and obsequiousness to soccer and its rituals. Soccer is the single most important thing in Frantisek’s life until the baby arrives, and then he’s prepared to buck the Colonel, cast soccer aside and keep his new ‘son’. How these characters connect as they move up, down and around through Czech society is the substance of this gently humourous film, yet poignant film. As I watched the film’s final scenes, I decided I’d really watched something quite extraordinary, and for that reason, I’m adding Up and Down to my film collection.

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Beauty in Trouble (2006)

“Comrade teacher, how many kids did you brainwash with your communist crap before allowing those salvation charlatans to throughly soak you?”

Sometimes I come across a film that is a complete surprise, and the 2006 Czech film, Beauty in Trouble (Kraska v Nesnazich) falls into that category. When the film arrived from Netflix, I couldn’t recall exactly why I’d added it to my queue. Anyway, with a rating of three stars, I didn’t expect much, so I was really surprised to find myself enjoying this story of two dysfunctional families and the intervention of a wealthy good Samaritan who has more on his mind than just being charitable.

The story is set mainly in Prague after the devastating 2002 flood, but there  are also a few contrasting scenes in sunny Tuscany. The film’s ‘beauty’ is Marcela (Anna Geislererova)–a woman somewhere in her thirties who dresses like a 13-year-old about to go to the disco for the first time. Marcela is married to Jarda (Roman Luknar), and they have two children–a girl on the brink of adolescence and a young boy who suffers from asthma. Since the family didn’t have flood insurance, they are struggling to make ends meet while still living in a house damaged by the flood. Jarda has taken to a life of crime, and he and his mates have established an ad-hoc chop shop in the garage. Stolen cars arrive, then Jarda creatively re-arranges them, and the family live on the proceedings. Meanwhile Jarda locks up his religious nutcase mother Libuse (Emilia Vasaryova) as he works so that he doesn’t have to listen to her sermons. Marcela isn’t thrilled about Jarda’s life of crime either, and she’s sure that he’ll eventually be caught, but Marcela’s complaints are silenced by noisy sex–the one thing that Marcela and Jarda seem to have going for their relationship.

One day, Marcela packs up the children and moves in with her mother Zdena (Jana Brejchova) and her mother’s peculiar boyfriend, the cadaverous ‘Uncle’ Richard (Jiri Schmitzer), so soon there are five people squashed in a flat meant for two. A sense of the absurd descends on the film at this point–there’s Marcela holed up with her children while her mother-in-law sleeps in the car outside, doggedly determined to persuade Marcela to return home. But the flat is hardly a refuge, and Richard vacillates between pointedly groping Zdena in front of everyone and lording it over the visitors when Zdena is absent.

But Marcela’s problems snowball when Jarda’s life of crime comes crashing to a halt after he’s caught for the theft of an expensive car. The stolen, computerized Volvo belongs to Evzen (Josef Abrham), a wealthy middle-aged man who lives in Italy but is in Prague to sell a house he’s just inherited. As fate would have it, Evzen is waiting at the police station when Marcela arrives. In this clever scene, both Evzen and Marcela seem to be invisible to each other for just a few moments, and then Marcela begins some rather obvious stretching exercises, shoving up her boobs even further out of her push up bra, and bending over to reveal one of her sexy tattoos. These simple actions grab Evzen’s attention (as they were intended to), and before long, he’s wining and dining Marcela, offering her money and allowing her to live in the house he’s just inherited.

Evzen seems to be a very nice man. He’s kind and generous, and that generosity extends to Marcela and her children. Evzen is everything that Jarda isn’t–he’s refined, gentlemanly and more importantly, he’s loaded. It looks as though Marcela may have hit the big time, and while Marcela’s slightly deranged mother isn’t thrilled by the relationship, her mother’s boyfriend, can’t believe Marcela’s luck. In one great scene, Evzen takes Marcela and her family to a posh restaurant, and the meeting throws the characters and their main concerns into the spotlight. While Evzen’s age appalls Marcela’s mother, Richard is practically rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of cashing in on Marcela’s good fortune, and he chalks up the disparity in Marcela and Evzen’s age to something he’s read about:  ‘they call it fuck buddies.’

Beauty in Trouble is a character-driven drama, and so most of the film’s strength comes from the collision of these strongly-drawn, disparate characters, their contrasted values, and their poisonous relationships. In spite of his urbanity, Evzen, at first, seems a little naive, insulated by his wealth and privilege from the desperate lives that the Marcela and her family lead. He’s lived in Italy since 1967 and even carts around a copy of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which he is reading in Italian. Not only does this subtle prop indicate Evzen’s divorcement from Czech society, but there’s also a hint that he’s reading the book to ‘bone up’ on Czech culture for his trip.

Richard is around the same age as Evzen, but they are complete, and startling opposites. Whereas Evzen generously basks in the safety and glow of impeccable grooming, wealth, and good food, Richard ‘s unattractive bitterness seems to coalesce around hanging on to the very little he has–hence one of the bitterest scenes occurs over a package of diabetic biscuits, and the message is that these precious biscuits cannot be easily replaced when they are gobbled down by Marcela’s children. When Richard first appears, he  makes a few remarks that are more than a little inappropriate to Marcela’s daughter, but at this point it’s not certain if he’s just eccentric. As the story plays out, however, Richard’s behaviour is a major impetus for Marcela’s life and the choices she makes. He dominates the screen, and in one great scene after another, he spews forth bitter diatribes. Lording it over everyone who makes the mistake of visiting his tiny apartment, those caught in his crosshairs get his lectures and his views on life whether they want to listen or not.  To Richard, Czechoslovakia is over–ruined by communism and now the new belief system–religion, and anyone with any brains will get out while they can.

But apart from the tale of Marcela’s choices (which are influenced by her bitter circumstances), the plot also carries a sly undercurrent–a morality tale if you will concerning the nature of charity. Evzen’s motives towards Marcela are never ‘pure’, but the money he passes to her boomerangs back via Libuse and her corrupt, manipulative preacher. Makes me think of the Marquis de Sade’s maxim: No good deed goes unpunished.

From director Jan Hrebejk.


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Secretary (2002)

In the film Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is released from a mental institution. It seems that Lee has a nasty habit of cutting herself on purpose with any number of sharp instruments. She returns to the bosom of her dysfunctional family–alcoholic dad and abused mum just in time for her sister’s wedding. In a gigantic attempt to improve her life, she attends secretarial school, and armed with her new diploma, she applies for a job at the law offices of E.Edward Grey (James Spader). After a series of rather inappropriate questions, Grey employs Lee on the spot. It’s clear that he’s intrigued with her–although he disguises it well. A bizarre sado-masochistic relationship begins to develop between the two, and Lee’s rather odd boyfriend–who is recovering from a nervous breakdown of his own–remains ignorant of the competing relationship.

James Spader has perfected sexual torment to a fine degree, and he delivered a wonderful performance. He was convincing as the sadist who is ashamed of his dark urges, but Lee is so submissive that he can’t help exploiting his position as the employer. And so Lee gets many a spanking for typos, and things progress from there. Maggie Gyllenhaal really is impressive in this–her first–role. She plays Lee as a naive, gentle, and vunerable pupil for Grey’s discipline. Grey’s office–which resembled an erotic boudoir in a brothel–really added to the atmosphere of imminent seduction. There is terrific chemistry between the two, and I found myself looking forward to their next encounter with glee.

However, while the comic overtone of the film was very enjoyable, these nagging little doubts were at the back of my mind. This was not a funny situation, and I couldn’t forget that Lee is supposed to have JUST been released from a mental institution. The implication, to me at least, is that she was released into the big bad world only to fall in the naughty spanking hands of her employer. Due to her vunerable mental state, there are ramifications of exploitation and victimization here that were not explored at all in the film. From director Steven Shainberg.

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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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Fat Girl (2001)

“No one would think we are sisters.”

Catherine Breillat’s film Fat Girl (A Ma Soeur) examines the relationship between two sisters–Anais and Elena. Pudgy, unattractive Anais (Anais Reboux) is 12 and svelte Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is 15. The girls are on holiday with their distracted father (Romain Goupil) and their bored mother (Arsinee Khanjian). It doesn’t take Elena long before she attracts the attentions of a much older, Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). Fernando is a practiced young man when it comes to manipulating girls, and he frankly boasts about his many conquests. But it really doesn’t take a great deal of skill to seduce Elena, and before long she’s convinced he loves her and that they’re engaged.

When it comes to boys, Elena has no scruples and no common sense. This is in complete contrast to her much more interesting and sensible sister, Anais. Anais’s dumpiness makes her an unlikely quarry for men like Fernando who are looking for just another conquest. Just as Fernando isn’t interested in probing the character behind Elena’s looks, Anais’s looks result in her instant dismissal–the sisters are both rejected or accepted on face value only. Anais is an interested observer to Elena’s folly through the course of the holiday. She watches Elena’s behaviour, keeping her own counsel, and reaches conclusions based on Elena’s experience. Elena believes she wants to give herself, for the first time, to someone special–a man she loves. In contrast, the much more complicated Anais wants her first sexual experience to be with someone who means absolutely nothing.

Just what befalls these two girls is the subject of the film. The plot examines how these two vastly different sisters treat each other–Elena uses Anais as a cover for her antics, but most of the time, she’s ashamed of her plain sister and is cruel as a result. Anais deals with Elena rather stoically for the most part–only allowing the occasional barb to deliver a sting. She too uses Elena in her own fashion, and to her Elena is almost an experiment in the exploitative nature of male-female relationships.

While I can’t say I enjoyed the film’s ending, nonetheless, it provided an ironic peculiar presentation of Anais’s philosophy. Director Catherine Breillat’s controversial films are always interesting to watch, and Fat Girl is not an exception. DVD extras include behind-the-scenes footage, and an interview with the director (this includes a look at alternate endings). In French with English subtitles.

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