French di­rec­tor Eric Lar­tigu tells Stephen Romei he was look­ing for an ac­tress who could sing but found a singer who could act

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Belier Fam­ily

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.

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