Film : Dysfunctional family fun - French style
Just in time to join the colorful splash of daffodils and other spring flowers comes "Family Hero" ("Heros de la Famille"), a charming French comedy playing Saturday, April 12, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart and a full roster of other well-known French actors, "Family Hero" offers an inside view of dysfunction, kookiness and kinkiness in an extended French vaudeville family.
Set in The Blue Parrot cabaret on the Riviera, the movie opens in the dressing room of its long-limbed showgirls about to go on stage. It wouldn't be a French cabaret without bare-breasted beauties, and when one family member later complains, "Do they ever put any clothes on?", the troupe's choreographer airily responds, "But they're dressed in light."
The movie's plot bolts out of the starting gate with the unexpected death of cabaret owner Gabriel Stern (Claude Brasseur). A dizzying cast of family characters - godchildren, ex-wives, siblings, girlfriends, and lovers - quickly arrives in Nice for the obligatory reading of the will. Most of those present have romantic or other crises going on in their own lives, and none of them get along very well with each other.
The less-than-burning question on everyone's mind is who will inherit the Blue Parrot and the rest of paterfamilias Gabriel's estate. The logical heir is Nicky Guazzini, alias Joseph Bensalem (Gérard Lanvin), a has-been illusionist who was Gabriel's adored adoptive son, but that would be too easy. Besides, Gabriel had ulterior motives.
Despite two ex-wives waiting in the wings, Simone (Miou-Miou) and Alice (Catherine Deneuve), Nicky has already begun pursuing the show's chanteuse Léa (Emmanuelle Béart). How, let alone why, Léa patiently carries the torch for Nicky is surely a mystery for most American women. Certainly, her presence provides the opportunity for a series of classic American cabaret tunes.
Most of the women in Nicky's life, past or present, still love him; it wouldn't be a French farce if they didn't. The exception is magazine editor Marianne (Géraldine Paelhas), Nicky's daughter by his first wife Simone. Marianne still resents her father and is busy squabbling with her soon-to-be ex-husband over custody of their child. Marianne's brother Nino (Michael Cohen), who serves as the cabaret's accountant and has left his gay lover behind in Paris for the time being, is not much more favorably disposed toward dear old dad.
Sorting out the relationships among these quirky folks takes a fair amount of audience patience. For instance, first wife Simone starred with Nicky in "The Rabbit in the Hat," a now-defunct children's TV show that used to be the kind of success Nicky would like to revive. The deceased Gabriel also went by the name Gabrielle, since he enjoyed cross-dressing and has left behind an extensive wardrobe of women's clothes, as well as men's.
Grande Dame Alice Mirmot, a.k.a. Ms. Deneuve playing and poking fun at herself, doesn't even show up until the movie is well underway. She used to be known as "Coeur de Jade," information that becomes important near the end of the story.
The Hollywood version of "Family Hero" would have stripped clean such complications of character, as well as a lot of the subplotting, and turned the film into a sanitized dud. Half the fun for the audience is watching how director Thierry Klifa nuances the characters with unusual back-stories and stuffs the subplots full of sexual peccadilloes and variations. In the make-believe world of this movie, Eliot Spitzer would still be serving as New York's governor.
While "Family Hero" careens from one unexpected revelation after another - watch for a secret room, a stewed rabbit, and a virtuoso version of "The Rose" - it still works its way to a surprisingly happy ending where love, in a peculiarly modern and French way, conquers all. Gabriel, whose ghost shows up occasionally to check on how the family is doing, must have been pleased with his handiwork.
"Family Hero" ("Heros de la Famille"), Saturday, April 12, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven, 7:30 pm. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm.
Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.