Philippe de Broca’s rousing costumer maintains the audacity of Herve Bazin’s perverse, 1920s-set Gallic childhood classic, highlighting the comedy of maternal monstrousness and letting the horror speak for itself. Pic, convincingly skewed toward the pre-teen protagonist’s p.o.v., offers delectably negative counterpoint to the “Harry Potter” and “Spy Kids” franchises by providing subversive twists on their lessons in juvenile empowerment. Dashes of Dickensian caricature, deliciously Grimm atmosphere, and superb cast headed by mom-from-hell Catherine Frot (making Cruella de Vil look cuddly) may see “Viper” slithering up French B.O. charts after October opening, assuring keen international arthouse interest.
Jean (Jules Sitruk) and his sickly older brother Freddie (William Touil) enjoy a happy childhood with their grandmother (Annick Alane) at the family chateau, the “Belle Angerie.” The death of their grandmother precipitates the return from Saigon of their parents, whom they barely remember but nonetheless await with joyful anticipation.
Their affable weakling father (Jacques Villeret), whose only passion is bugs (or, more specifically, various species of flies), greets them warmly. Their introduction to Mumsy, though, comes in the form of a high-heeled shoe drop-kicking them as she descends from the train.
Things turn demonic as Mommy Dearest pulls kids out of school, appropriates their toys, food, blankets and coal, and sets them out to till the soil as unpaid gardening staff. She demands draconian privations for the least infraction and sticks forks into their hands until they bleed.
She forces household members to attend 5 a.m. Mass after firing a beloved English tutor (Cherie Lunghi) and replacing her with a Polish priest (Wojtek Pszoniak) who, as it turns out, has little tolerance for her fanaticism. But she does not require tolerance, only obedience.
All her children loathe her — even Marcel (Pierre Stevenin), a hitherto unknown Indochina-born brother whom she uses to sew dissention among the siblings. But only budding writer Jean proves himself her equal, learning to hate with a fervor that breeds ingenuity, even genius (Jean will author the autobiographical trilogy of which “Viper” is the first installment).
His mother tells Jean, with terrifying insight, that of all her sons he most resembles her, a prospect that Jean finally comes to cynically embrace. His contempt for her gives him an overriding raison d’etre. Even when father and sons take off together to visit an aunt in Paris and indulge in forbidden pleasures from sumptuous meals to jazzy Charlestons, Jean finds he misses the hatred that spices up his life.
Out-and-out warfare intensifies as the kids call down vengeance upon “Folcoch” (a combination of “folle,” crazy, and “cochon,” pig), as they dub their mother, venting their bile by trashing the chapel, defecating on missals and even trying (in vain) to poison her.
De Broca, who recently has specialized in children’s tales of derring-do, has a ball with the over-the-top nature of parent and offsprings’ pitched battles, with suitably gothic musical chords separately heralding characters’ dramatic entrances.
The film’s admittedly unhealthy inter-generational exchanges, by being treated as gruesome storybook happenings and thankfully undiluted by moral conversions or life-affirming hugs, acquire a larger-than-life gusto. Such childhoods may be terrible, but never boring.
Frot’s Folcoch is the wonderfully villainous fleshed-out personification of a fairytale witch. Sitruk’s Jean is precocious without being precious, as wide-ranging in his overall intelligence as he grows narrow-minded in his matricidal obsession.
Perhaps most perfect of all, however, is Villeret’s etymologically escapist father with an emotional pathos that suggests Jim Broadbent at his most helpless.
Tech credits are excellent; Yves Lafaye’s lensing sustains an easy equilibrium between realism and fable with impressive period set-design by Christian Siret and Milly Burns never overwhelming narrative.