Acclaimed short film director Jacques Maillot's feature bow, "Our Happy Lives," calls to mind TV ensemble dramas like "thirtysomething" retooled with a verite-style, distinctly French aesthetic. Sustained and perversely compelling on one hand but overblown and superficial on the other, this web of interwoven events from the lives of six acquaintances becomes a voyeuristic marathon as it maneuvers its characters through an often painful series of changes.

Acclaimed short film director Jacques Maillot’s feature bow, “Our Happy Lives,” calls to mind TV ensemble dramas like “thirtysomething” retooled with a verite-style, distinctly French aesthetic. Sustained and perversely compelling on one hand but overblown and superficial on the other, this web of interwoven events from the lives of six acquaintances becomes a voyeuristic marathon as it maneuvers its characters through an often painful series of changes. Commercial prospects for this arthouse soap will be severely curtailed by its excessive length.

The French seem to be forever making these intimate dramas that jam the emotions of their characters under a microscope and stack up seemingly arbitrary problems and obstacles to happiness in their path. But they rarely do them on this scale — pic runs close to two and a half hours. Like many such exercises, this one is often well observed and not uninvolving — especially in the early stages — as it explores the moments of joy and, more frequently, the cruelty and contradictions of life and the messy connections people make.

The six central characters in turn introduce several more peripheral figures, making for a sprawling ensemble. Principal stories being tracked include the initially problematic romance between Julie (Marie Payen), recovering from a suicide attempt after a broken relationship, and Ali (Sami Bouajila), a Moroccan with immigration problems. Ali washes dishes in a restaurant where the chef, Lucas (Jean-Michel Portal), sees his marriage break up abruptly, leaving him to grapple with and eventually accept his sexual identity.

Cecile (Cecile Richard) is a bored wild child given to rash behavior and obsessively photographing her friends, while Emilie (Camille Japy) is trying to emerge from a dead relationship with Antoine (Alain Beigel), who continues to feel a lingering affection for her. The least defined of the main characters is Jean-Paul (Eric Bonicatto), who devotes his time to Catholic help organizations. The principals are all brought together at an exhibition of Cecile’s photographs.

Maillot and co-writer Eric Veniard are more interested in touching on nuances of contemporary emotional life than in uncovering any momentous truths. Consequently the film fails to achieve much depth. Main conclusion here, if there is one, is that the cogs in life never turn smoothly, but despite the knocks, faith, hope and trust are qualities worth holding on to.

The often amusing film’s unfussy dialogue feels refreshingly underscripted, an approach echoed in the natural work of the accomplished cast. Andrea Sedlackova’s editing is seamlessly fluid, keeping track of the many characters and loosely interconnected plot strands, and lenser Luc Pages’ sharp camerawork is limber and unconstrained.

Our Happy Lives

(Nos Vies Heureuses)

Production

A Mars Films release (in France) of a Magouric Prods./Groupe TSF/Idea Prods. production in association with Canal Plus. (International sales: Flach Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Laurent Benegui. Directed by Jacques Maillot. Screenplay, Maillot, Eric Veniard

With

Julie - Marie Payen Cecile - Cecile Richard Emilie - Camille Japy Ali - Sami Bouajila Jean-Paul - Eric Bonicatto Lucas - Jean-Michel Portal With: Sarah Grappin, Olivier Py, Alain Beigel, Fanny Cottencon, Marc Chapiteau, Frederic Gelard, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Jallil Lespert.
Camera (color), Luc Pages; editor, Andrea Sedlackova; music, Allie Delfau; production designer, Valerie Berman; costume designer, Bethsabee Dreyfus; sound (DTS Stereo), Frederic de Ravignan; assistant director, Mathieu de Pasquale. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 19, 1999. Running time: 147 MIN.
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