LONGING TO BE HEARD
French director Eric Lartigu tells Stephen Romei he was looking for an actress who could sing but found a singer who could act
When it came to casting the central role in the feelgood comedy The Belier Family — that of a teenage girl with a stunning singing voice — Eric Lartigu started scouting around for a young actress who could sing. The French filmmaker was not having much luck when a friend suggested he check out one of the contestants in the local version of the reality television program The Voice. He caught up with the show and found his star, 18-year-old Louane Emera.
“Yes, I was looking for an actress who could sing but found a singer who could act,’’ the director says from Paris. “I watched the show and when I saw her I thought a pureness came out of her, and she was Paula from that point.’’
Emera’s Paula is not just a young woman with a musical gift and nervous dreams of a different life, but also the fulcrum of an unusual and challenging family: both her parents and her younger brother are deaf.
The Belier family runs a dairy farm in rural France, with cheesemaking its main business. They communicate via sign language. Paula’s gruff but tender father Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and flighty but fierce mum Gigi (Karin Viard) rely heavily on her to navigate the hearing world.
When a local music teacher hears Paula sing, he wants her to audition for an exclusive school in Paris. Her parents, particularly her mother, are upset, fearing abandonment. “I can’t stand people who can hear,’’ Gigi furiously signs.
This parental pressure weighs hard on Paula but she also senses that her adult life must be elsewhere, that she can’t be “condemned to sell cheese all my life because I am not lucky enough to be deaf’’.
That comment — delivered in sign language — underscores a tension between the deaf and hearing worlds that emerged to cause trouble for Lartigu when the film opened in France.
He was criticised in the first place for not casting deaf actors as Paula’s parents. Further, in a controversy similar to that over Benedict Cumberbatch’s transgender character in the upcoming Zoolander 2, Damiens and Viard were accused of caricaturing deaf people.
Prominent deaf actress Emmanuelle Laborit said the two lead actors “sign like pigs’’ and compared their casting with having French characters played by “foreigners who can’t speak French properly’’.
Lartigu, who has a deaf cousin, says he is sensitive to the challenges faced by the deaf, but adds it never occurred to him to cast deaf actors in the film.
“Of course there are marvellous deaf actors but this is not supposed to be a documentary film,’’ he says.
“An actor’s job is to interpret and impersonate a character, to jump into their skin, whether it be a doctor, a pilot, whatever. In this case it was becoming deaf people.
“I thought of Karin and Francois as soon as I started writing the script — their faces appeared in my mind — so I just decided to follow my instincts.’’
Damiens and Viard worked one-on-one with individual deaf coaches, learning sign language and the accompanying facial expressions. Some have criticised the latter as being over-the-top and mined for comic effect. Lartigu respectfully disagrees.
“It was fascinating to work with this rich language, this rich world,’’ he says. “It was about learning the attitudes. If you just sign, the meaning won’t come across. Facial expressions are extremely important. They might seem exaggerated but that’s how you need to communicate.’’
Others have backed this interpretation and also defended Lartigu’s casting, pointing out, for example, that the able-bodied Francois Cluzet starred as the quadriplegic Philippe in The Intouchables (2011), one of France’s biggest hits.
The Belier Family has also been a success at Louane Emera, left, and Emera with Luca Gelberg, Francois Damiens and Karin Viard in The Belier Family; above, Eric Lartigu the French box office and with critics, with Damiens and Viard both nominated for acting awards at the Cesars, France’s Oscars. And Lartigu’s biggest gamble paid off, with Emera, who comes from a large working-class family, winning the Cesar for most promising actress.
Her performance beautifully captures the awkwardness and uncertainties of adolescence — “A very intense period in which people are full of contradictions,’’ Lartigu observes — and her climactic rendition of Michel Sardou’s song about children leaving home, Je vole (I’m Flying) is likely to bring a lump to the throat. “I love you but I’m leaving.”
Adding poignancy, especially for French audiences who know Emera’s story from The Voice, where she was semi-finalist in 2013, is the fact both her parents died in the past few years.
Lartigu is speaking in the days after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. He agrees that France needs a goodhearted film such as his right now, but adds, “We are not doctors, we cannot save lives.’’
“What we as filmmakers can do is be close to the people, to their imaginations and their dreams, the things that these terrorists, these barbarians who are not in life, are trying to end.’’
opens on December 26.