C’est la vie! is like a very French Fawlty Towers

by Peter Calder / 27 June, 2018
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The unpredictable ending of C'est la vie! adds a touch of magic to the finely tuned comedy.

Writer-director duo Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano have made an impact outside France mainly with The Intouchables and the less-noticed Samba, which sentimentalised and condescended to their black main characters while exploiting the rights of immigrants and minorities for cheap laughs. Both were popular, the former a box-office smash.

The comic intentions of their new film are more honest and straightforward, though the laughs may not come as freely. The movie derives from a tradition of French farce that makes for a fanciful, even slightly rueful, tone, and it doesn’t try to ingratiate itself with the audience.

Despite its silly title (not the original; the French don’t say “c’est la vie” any more than they say “sacré bleu”), it’s a finely tuned comedy, like a Gallic Fawlty Towers with Robert Altman directing.

The story’s Basil Fawlty equivalent is Max (the veteran Jean-Pierre Bacri), an acerbic and perfectionist wedding planner, and the film unspools over 12 hours of an extravagant reception at a 17th-century chateau.

Max has his hands full: his short-fused and profane lieutenant (Eye Haïdara), dim or disappearing waitstaff, a surrealistically egocentric groom and a preening prat of a stand-in DJ (Gilles Lellouche, marvellous). His senior colleague, who is also his mistress, has dumped him. Oh, and it’s his birthday.

As is the way of these things, misfortunes pile up at an improbable rate and catastrophes are averted with equal implausibility (a restaurant kitchen turns out a fine meal for 200 with an hour’s warning and it all fits in a small van), but as the noose of calamity tightens, the pace picks up.

The film cuts back and forth between a dozen component subplots involving characters who are too individual to be clichés: a photographer with a visceral hate for cellphone cameras; one waiter with plainly doomed aspirations to be a magician; another who keeps correcting his colleagues’ grammar.

But best of all, it ends unpredictably, imaginatively, even poetically, in a way that elevates two characters who have seemed peripheral all along. It adds a flourish of magic to a small, but sweet, and very French concoction.

Video: UniFrance

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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