A subversively entertaining take on keeping up appearances via carefully spun racism and prejudice, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Bellyful” is an original look at what transpires when closed-minded conservative hypocrites pretend to be open-minded humanitarian liberals. Sly French-lingo venture based on helmer’s novel uses digital video to its advantage in re-creating the look and feel of small-town France circa 1967. Pic preemed as a special presentation in Cannes’ Critics Week and opens Wednesday in Gaul; fests will find this a welcome addition.
Respectable middle-aged couple Loretta (Andrea Ferreol) and Henri (Jacques Boudet) tell the director of an orphanage they’ve been overwhelmed with work at their bistro, Le Ventre Plein (The Full Belly), since their daughter went to stay with a sick aunt. Although they live in an insular, all-white community, the pair are unnervingly eager to offer a waitressing job to a young black woman. Sweet, trusting Diamantine (Meiji U Tum’si) fills the bill. She’s about to turn 18 and has lived her entire life at the orphanage.
Solicitous to the point of smarminess, Loretta and Henri tell their live-in employee that she’s “one of the family,” yet seem to go out of their way to encourage the townsfolk to disapprove of the accommodating young lady. One evening, they ask if Diamantine would be willing to repay their kindness by pretending to be pregnant. The girl goes along with what she’s been assured is a joke, wearing increasing layers of padding under her clothes.
Loretta can barely contain her joy when Jan (versatile Dutch musician Herman van Veen), a Flemish friend who spent seven years in prison on a smuggling charge, comes to stay. Jan keeps asking about their daughter but is told she’s in Toulouse tending to a sick aunt. Some 45 minutes in, the reasons for the pregnancy charade are revealed — and they’re mighty twisted, in a quasi-upstanding sort of way.
Scripter-helmer Van Peebles sustains an agreeably conspiratorial mood and has a field day chipping away at the allegedly pious, self-described “pillars of the community.” Ferreol simply couldn’t be better, and U Tum’si is grounded and delightful as goodness incarnate. By setting his tale in a cultural backwater back in the mid-’60s, when unwed mothers were automatic pariahs, Van Peebles draws a subtle map of how intolerance can be either fanned or stamped out.
Digital lensing is very good, as is the film transfer. A few wacky flashbacks — including one in which an elderly woman permanently lends a hand to her jealous husband — are particularly memorable for their narrative chutzpah. Helmer also composed the score, which ranges across several styles but favors jazzy, effusive piano music.