This delightful French musical drama-comedy has certainly created plenty of headlines – which have no doubt helped the bottom line considerably – and has apparently caused considerable consternation amongst France’s hearing-impaired community. Whilst it is hard to ignore the criticisms directed at the film, it seems as though much of the outrage is misdirected or driven by a superficial familiarity with the characters. You see, The Bélier Family follows the trials and tribulations of a quirky dairy farming family, all of whom are deaf with the exception of 15-year-old Paula (Louane Emera). In addition to helping around the farm and attending school, Paula also serves as the interpreter at their cheese stall on market day as well as dealing with clients, suppliers and the like over the phone. Her life is already hectic enough when a decision to join the school choir – ostensibly to be near a boy she fancies – results in her being offered an opportunity to study singing in Paris. Needless to say, the possibility of Paula leaving the farm results in much consternation and familial tension.
Some have argued that the depiction of Paula’s family – father Rodolphe (Francois Damiens), mother Gigi (Karin Viard) and younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg) – is a ‘crass’ and ‘embarrassing’ interpretation of deaf culture, particularly given the fact that director Eric Lartigau opted not to use deaf actors in the roles. However, the humour that emanates from Rodolphe and Gigi is not because of their deafness, or because of the actors playing the deafness for laughs, it comes from the circumstances in which they find themselves and the way in which they react to them. The humour is not derived from their deafness, but rather from the fact that they are typically embarrassing parents. We do not laugh at them because they use sign language, we laugh at them because of what they say. Of course, the fact that they are deaf does make it hard for them to understand Paula’s passion for music and therefore makes her impending departure a little harder to accept than a teenager chasing such an opportunity might ordinarily be. Even with her role in the family business, there is never a suggestion that they are incapable of functioning effectively without her.
Having been discovered on the French version of reality singing show The Voice, Emera handles the singing with aplomb and is remarkably assured in her first acting role. She handles both the drama and comedy with equal conviction and it is no surprise that she has been awarded Most Promising Actress at both the César and Lumiere Awards. It is her likeability that makes the film – which is clichéd and edging towards melodrama at times – so utterly enjoyable. There are myriad moments of humour that are refreshing in their candour, such as Gigi’s delight at Paula experiencing her first period or Quentin’s allergic reaction at the most inopportune time. There are a range of eclectic supporting characters, from Paula’s sexually fervent best friend Mathilde (Roxane Duran) to music teacher Fabian (Eric Elmosnino), who is both perverse and passionate. Of all the narrative threads, the romance between Paula and Gabriel (Ilian Bergala) is perhaps the least engaging although, thankfully, it is never cloying, mainly because Paula is just too goddamn busy (she is always running or riding somewhere) to invest too much time in matters of the heart.
Sure, it would be nice to see hearing-impaired performers secure roles such as these, but the likes of Damiens and Viard taking on these characters is no different to Francois Cluzet playing a paraplegic in The Intouchables, Jamie Foxx as blind bluesman Ray Charles in Ray or Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot as Christy Brown, an artist stricken with cerebral palsy. As much as I am loathe to use the term ‘feel good movie’ to describe The Bélier Family, there is no doubt that this is an uplifting affair in which the characters are largely likeable and genuinely amusing. The music embedded in the narrative – via Paula’s performances and the music she listens to – is simply another element to enjoy and it would be hard to remain unmoved during her rendition of Michel Sardou’s Je Vole that essentially seals her fate. This is a French funny that is definitely worth catching.