cinematographique

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The First Day of the Rest of Your Life ***½

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PremierJourRémi Bezançon’s title is inspired by a portentous line from American Beauty, but also recalls the French hit single by Étienne Daho. These references originate two threads woven through Le Premier Jour du Reste de ta Vie: the central premise that each day has the potential to determine the subsequent trajectory of your life; and a cool, contemporary stylistic sensibility. It traces the fortunes of the five members of the Duval family, each over a single significant day, spanning 12 years from 1988 to 2000.

Each day is presented with subjective preoccupations of one character amid the chaos of family life. Their character pervades the aesthetics of each respective passage, with powerful and creative shifts in style. Focus on the fortunes of our protagonists is unwavering, never distracted by an undernourished supporting cast. Robert, the father, is a constant: independent and stoic. The mother, Marie-Jeanne, is skittish, but she’s the glue that binds the family. Their eldest son, Albert, is remote and yet a protective warrior figure, kept at arms length with distant shots. The middle son is the troublesome but lovable, dreamy and nostalgic Raphaël, characterised by flashbacks and time-shifts. And the youngest, Fleur, is supposed to be the most troubled, and we focus on her blinkered internal world, but clear parallels with her mother draw out. We follow these perfectly normal people through coming-of-age, flying-the-nest, ageing and death, marriage and birth. There is farce, tragedy, verve and Gallic charm.

PremierJour2This is not necessarily a stereotypically French film, although it is clearly a work for the French mass market. The Duvals are anything but the melodramatic cliché of the highly strung and dysfunctional (yet loving) French family. They have a brooding vitality, but are at once representative of any family. This is a sensitively observed portrayal of the miniature events that constitute our lives, writ large. Le Premier Jour du Reste de ta Vie is significantly less complicated than Un Conte de Noël (its less commercial, more edgy and intellectually superior peer amongst the French critical darlings of the past year) but equally, is refreshingly devoid of the usual preoccupations with dysfunction. The Duvals are pretty average (in relief to Arnaud Desplechin’s characters, whose dysfunction is magnified by the incredibly subtle detail in his portrait) and their issues are generally quite soluble. Bezançon’s genius is to bring us inside this family, to the point where we really care about the typical tribulations of his five protagonists.

This is achieved through mastery of story and five excellent performances (all of which earned César nominations, except for Zabou Breitman’s Marie-Jeanne, controversially). The script is incredibly tight and elegant: the miniature events, the milestones that demarcate a life, become majestic. Our involvement with the film, should we be open to the experience, is very intimate because these are events in our own lives – the most universal of stories. It is lovely to behold how Bezançon takes the well-worn format of family melodrama and can miniaturize, modernize and universalize it.

PremierJour3While we get under the skin of their relationships, we don’t seem to penetrate deeply into the characters as individuals – a sacrifice of depth for the sake of scope. At times touching and fully of stylistic flourishes, the film is rarely poetic or beautiful (despite some exceptional moments, such as when one character breathes in the last breath of her deceased partner from an inflatable cushion, or when the younger son has a moment of glory at an air-guitar performance, and later, loses the phone number of a possible lover to a gust of wind). The point is that Bezançon is ambitious, but the treatment of too many themes running through family life is a little shallow.

It would be unfair to claim that Bezançon cannot write female parts simply on the basis of one under-written part: eldest son Albert’s wife Prune (Cécile Cassel). The focus is unremittingly on the five leads, and she is no more neglected than any other supporting character (although the treatment of the grandfather might undermine this argument a notch). There is certainly some insight to the treatment of Marie-Jeanne’s sense of ageing – delivered without words, but in figures and expressions, in elegant symbol systems (consider the vintage wine tastings, photography of plants and fruits growing old, flirtation with plastic surgery, and time-machine references). The teenage anxieties of Fleur and the mother/daugher mechanisms for coping with trauma come out well. Equally, the male themes of failure in fatherhood, generational paternal rifts and favouritism, are handled deftly if too swiftly.

PremierJour4Perhaps there is some good to the light-hearted optimism entailed by lending these issues brief consideration – taking the long view, these aren’t the important things in a lifetime’s experience. This seems to be part of the message, emphasized by some creative editing that recreates the experience of flicking through a photo album (a form brought into close focus by a scene where Fleur’s mother fast tracks through her daughter’s adolescence by reading excerpts from her diary). We also study the respective reflexive influences of tribe and individual, of fate and chance, on our emotional and physical lives. Weight is given to the role of chaotic events, the things that blindside us on a Thursday morning, as determinants of our futures. This is an effective analysis of trajectory, and a sharp, moving celebration of family life and memory.

Opening with nostalgic home-video footage of a pregnant Marie-Jeanne, and closing with the knowing smile of her pregnant daughter, Le Premier Jour du Reste de ta Vie is accessible, energetic, feel-good fare. Occasionally its imagery is blunt and its message slightly too sweet. But it is, by turns, deeply touching. Bound together with an hip, alternative, epochal soundtrack, and the smart editing of Sophie Reine, it comes off with a fine pace and entertaining dramatic rhythm. Sometimes style takes precedence over substance, and it is unsurprising it missed out on the top César award to Séraphine and The Class, but there is such charm to it that it must be recommended. It even works as a character comedy – I laughed out loud more often than in the typical high-profile American comedies. It is unusual to have such accessible humour (to we Brits) from a continental writer, and its jokes are sweet and humane. A well-woven tapestry of a lifetime’s experience.

 

Le premier jour du reste de ta vie, Dir. & Writ. Rémi Bezançon, Mandarin Films, France, 2008

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