A star vehicle with spacious seating for eight dramatis personae, “Family Hero” centers on wounded souls forced to interact when the owner of a venerable Nice cabaret dies. Confidently over-the-top guilty pleasure posits that life is messy but the show must go on — preferably with feather boas, rabbits in hats and topless women with lovely breasts. Throw in a jubiliantly self-mocking Catherine Deneuve, a cross-dressing Claude Brasseur and a pulpy Emmanuelle Beart warbling torch songs in English, and what’s not to like? Ambitious ensembler, released Dec. 20, is fest-ready with possible offshore prospects.
Pic’s strength is that the ensemble cast plunges headlong into full-throttle melodrama, with helmer Thierry Klifa giving believable emotions a shameless visual boost now and then. Deneuve’s character actually enters a family pow-wow to the sound of thunderclaps as the electricity flickers; couples (gay or straight) embrace as fireworks explode over the Nice waterfront.
At the outset, the fatigued Gabriel Stern (Brasseur), septuagenarian owner of the Blue Parrot nightclub, asks in-house magician and surrogate son Nicky (Gerard Lanvin) to lock up. The next day, a lot of busy, attractive people — including Nicky’s two adult children — learn Gabriel has died.
Thirtysomething Paris accountant Nino Bensalem (Michael Cohen), who lives with his much younger boyfriend (Pierrick Lilliu), hops a flight to Nice, as does Marianne Bensalem (Geraldine Pailhas), the half-sister he barely knows. Marianne, also in her 30s, is the hotshot editor of a popular women’s magazine.
Marianne’s mother is Simone (Miou-Miou), who co-starred with Nicky on a children’s TV show decades ago. And Nino’s mother is Alice (Deneuve), the freest spirit in this dour, grief-stricken crowd. She and Nicky are not on friendly terms, and Alice and Simone seem to cordially detest each other.
The reading of the will results in a bombshell: Gabriel has left the Blue Parrot to the completely uninterested Marianne and Nino, rather than to the devoted Nicky. Latter is basically broke and washed up, despite his still-suave demeanor.
The statuesque Russian chorus girls and their choreographer (Valerie Lemercier), slinky singer Lea O’Connor (Beart) and a menagerie of magic-act animals will be dispersed when the young heirs sell the property. But the late Gabriel — who, for 40 years, performed in drag as “Gabrielle” — wanted the warring factions to reconcile. The Blue Parrot is more than a cabaret — though just how much more emerges gradually.
Laced with flashbacks, as well as Nicky’s ongoing conversations with the deceased-yet-visible Gabriel, narration covers a few jam-packed days, but is not altogether linear.
Thesps are clearly having a field day. Special praise goes to Deneuve in a delectable role (“You’ve had some more work done, haven’t you?” asks her son while examining her face) and to Beart, who purrs standards while poured into seductive gowns. Lanvin looks suitably pained as a magician who’s nearly out of tricks.
Sophomore feature by former film journo Klifa (“I’ve Been Waiting So Long,” 2004), again co-scripting with Christopher Thompson (“Avenue Montaigne”), is full to bursting with unsuspected allegiances and long-awaited missing pieces of multiple puzzles. Script’s artistry lies in how it manages to arrive at a hopeful conclusion after so much Sturm und Drang.
Lensing is classy, and the musical numbers are surprisingly touching.