Last week I went to see La Famille Bélier with Gert. I’d seen the trailer among the previews before Wild a week earlier and I was fascinated.
I loved the movie, and was so touched by, especially, the ending that I cried. I can’t quite put my finger on it why, though. So I’ve spent the past few days thinking about it, but I still can’t place it.
The movie shows us the Bélier family, father, mother, 16 year old daughter and a 14 or so year old son. Both parents and the son are Deaf. The son was born Deaf, and it is implied that the parents were, too. The daughter, Paula, is hearing, and it is from her perspective that the movie is shot.
The Béliers run a dairy farm. They have a number of cows and sell cheese at the local market(s). As the only hearing person in the family, Paula is the one fielding phone calls to and from suppliers and other contacts. She also serves as a translator for her parents in situations where they interact with hearing people face to face.
Besides that, she works at the farm, and has school, which is rather far away. Suffice it to say, her days are full, and there’s always something she has to do.
We get snapshots of Paula translating for her parents at the doctor’s office, and working the cheese stand at the market where her parents can’t hear a customer’s questions.
As the movie is billed (at least partially) as a comedy, these situations are extrapolated and magnified for comedic effect. The doctor’s visit has Paula having to tell her parents they can’t have sex for three weeks to allow her mother’s infection to heal. The cheese stand scene sees Paula quip that it’s the division of work: her mother smiles, she talks.
I can imagine these situations can come across as insulting to Deaf people, but I feel they are justified here based on the point of view. It is Paula that we follow, and Paula who is often exasperated by her family’s antics, as teenagers generally are. She doesn’t always want to be the one that has to do this or do that, she wants to do her own things, grow up some. And her parents like to keep their little family as is, safe and home.
At school, it’s time for the students to pick their extracurricular activity. Paula and her best friend Mathilde are waiting in line when they see Gabriel, the boy Paula is crushing on. He’s from Paris and seems to be the odd duck at school. When he picks choir as his activity, Paula promptly follows suit.
During choir practice, the teacher makes them sing songs by Michel Sardou, a French singer-songwriter who’s been singing for about 50 years. He’s not very popular with the younger generation, but a bit of a legend among older ones for his work in the 70s. Reading his Wikipedia page, I’m getting a bit of a Boudewijn de Groot vibe for that period.
The Parisian, as the boy is referred to, has a good voice, so he gets to sing a solo at the end of year recital. During practice, however, it turns out that Paula, normally fairly soft spoken, has a really good voice.
The teacher turns the Parisian’s solo into a duet with Paula. They agree to practice at her house, which results in a (for Paula) embarassing scene involving herself, the boy and her parents. Mortified she decides to keep her involvement with choir a secret from her parents.
The teacher also tells her about a singing competition in Paris. The winner gets to attend a school for talented singers, in Paris. He wants her to enter, and Paula wants to, as well. To get her ready, she practices at her teacher’s house every evening singing Je Vole, also by Michel Sardou. Je Vole is a song wherein a teenager tells his parents that he is about to leave. It’s not fleeing, it’s flying away, without substances, without other influences, the teenager chooses his own path and he begs his parents to accept this.
So between all her other duties, she now has to practice her singing both solo and the duet. And then, to make matters worse, her father decides to run for mayor. Leading to Paula being needed even more to translate.
When she finally does tell her parents she’s singing in the choir, she is met with resistance and a fight. Paula’s desire to follow her own dreams clashes with her mother’s fear of losing her. A fear she’s had ever since she learned that Paula could hear.
Her parents come to the recital at school and during the choir performance you can see they don’t really get it. Why would they, they’re all born deaf, they never heard music. They’ll be able to feel vibration, but they can’t feel that from a choir sitting in the audience.
So they look around a lot, talk to each other and keep busy while they wait for the rest to applaud to signify the singing is over.
Then, Paula and Gabriel sing their duet. As they start to hit the chorus, the sound fades and it remains silent for the rest of the song. A very powerful method to give some sort of clue to the hearing part of the audience as to how her parents and brother are experiencing it. They can, of course never fully replicate it, as hearing people will remember how music sounds, but it does make you realise how weird it must be for them to see her enjoy something they can never fully participate in.
It’s a chasm between them and it scares her mother more. Her father seems more understanding and later, when they’re back home, he asks her to sing for him as he places his hand on her throat. She sings for him, and he seems to see her passion, but ultimately can’t experience it in the same way.
Paula, who had decided against leaving her family, changes her mind at the last minute and her parents ultimately support her. They drive her to Paris and she makes the audition just in time. Her parents sit in the room to watch as Paula starts to sing. Even though they might be able to read lips (they don’t really do so during the movie) they still don’t fully understand. But then, as she starts the verse, she starts to sign along.
The lyrics are adapted slightly to better fit the actual story in the movie. And she sings about her mother’s sad face and her father’s smile and how she loves them, but she has to go and fly. It’s not a running away, but she is leaving, and they will no longer have a child. With the help of the signing, her parents finally understand, and accept.
There are some other story lines that are partly shown but get no neat endings, like her father’s mayoral candidature or her brother’s interest in Mathilde, just as life itself keeps going for others when you go a different direction.
If you can, watch this movie. It’s funny, entertaining, and deeply moving. The actress playing Paula, Louane, is also a singer (she was in the French version of The Voice) and the song is available on her album on Spotify. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since I saw the movie.
I couldn’t find a Dutch or English subbed version, so this German one will have to do