An old family estate reveals a fresh family scandal when a globe trotter decides to revisit the house where he grew up in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Families.” Featuring Mathieu Amalric as a loosely fictionalized version of the fastidious “Cyrano de Bergerac” director, this tony character drama is Rappeneau’s most personal film to date — and a radical swing from what had been planned as his next project, a massively expensive international espionage drama titled “Affaires etrangeres.” When that production cratered at the last minute, Rappeneau turned inward, delivering a picture that could easily be dismissed as a light after-dinner trifle, but actually proves to be as rich and layered as a gourmet mille-feuille. The contemporary setting will make this elegantly crafted romance trickier to export than much of Rappeneau’s other work, though it should be warmly adopted by fans of Olivier Assayas’ thematically similar “Summer Hours.”
Swooping into Paris with his Chinese life/business partner (Gemma Chan), middle-aged Jerome Varenne (Amalric) engages just long enough with family matters to realize that the grande maison where he spent his formative years is on the block to be sold — and possibly demolished — to make room for development in his thriving Loire valley hometown. The deal is tied up in legal red tape — quite literally affixed via wax seal to the historical building’s front door and backed by a giddy local mayor (Andre Dussollier) — motivating Jerome to borrow the car from his severe, divorce-scarred mother (Nicole Garcia) and take one last look.
While his fiancee hops over to London to attend to an important business deal, Jerome finds the trip down memory lane more complicated than expected: The provincial town itself has completely transformed, representing a phenomenon no doubt shared by many of his generation as they witness the modernization of a country whose charm rests in more aristocratic times. (When Rappeneau himself went home, he witnessed the same thing, only the building where he’d spent his childhood had been torn down entirely— re-created here through a combination of three different houses around Blois and Tours.)
There are also subtle class tensions with an old rival in the form of a social-climbing acquaintance, Gregoire (Gilles Lellouche), whose self-made success positions him to buy a home that would have been reserved for noble-born blood a few generations earlier. By America’s aspirational Horatio Alger standards, Gregoire might have been the more obvious hero of this story, although in France, where class lines are more rigidly defended, he’s treated as an object of nouveau-riche ridicule, looked down upon by Amalric’s better-bred, old-money Jerome, who hails from one of the country’s “belles familles” (the pic’s original French-language title).
Even so, Rappeneau doesn’t let Jerome’s character off so easily: He may come from better stock, but Jerome meets his match in Gregoire’s model-gorgeous young g.f., Louise (Marine Vacth), one of those young French stunners whose screen presence effectively represents genetic perfection. Intrigued by a woman who clearly loathes him, Jerome finds excuses to extend his stay, trying to figure out his enigmatic half-sister — or whatever one calls the biological daughter of the woman for whom his father abandoned his first marriage.
In light of that potentially incestuous connection, “Families” functions as a slightly icky though undeniably elegant princess-and-the-toad romance between Louise’s Cinderella-like beauty and her thoroughly unhandsome semi-sibling, Jerome. Dig deeper, however, and there are all sorts of levels on which to engage, as Rappeneau challenges classically held French assumptions about love, fidelity and filial responsibility. (It’s not unlike “I Am Love” in that respect, arguing that passion trumps patriarchy.)
Though far smaller than “Affaires etrangeres” would have been, the film benefits from the same level of obsessive craftsmanship Rappeneau has brought to the rest of his swoon-inducing oeuvre, evident in everything from its literary-caliber script (there’s a bit of “Buddenbrooks” in this declining-family ensembler, co-written by the helmer’s son Julien Rappeneau and “Floride” director Philippe Le Guay) to the sheer energy of his approach. “Families” may be caught up in such bureaucratic concerns as inheritance law, civil planning and multinational business mergers, but it’s never boring, bringing an engagingly light and nimble approach to such upper-class headaches. Such dynamism is no accident; it’s one of Rappeneau’s signatures, the result of meticulous pre-planning, by which he can cut into action with each new scene (characters running, driving, etc.) and duck out before the energy evaporates, using subtle devices — such as blocking, music and gliding camerawork — to ensure that the momentum never abates.
For all its technical brilliance, it’s ultimately the cast that makes “Families” such a delight, as Rappeneau assembles some of the country’s finest (if not necessarily most famous) performers in roles that hew close to type, while still leaving room for the thesps to upend our expectations. Amalric, for example, may have become the default choice when directors seek their doppelgangers (doubling for Roman Polanski and Arnaud Desplechin in recent years), yet he still manages to create an all-new character here.
Relative newcomer Vacth radiates the freshness of a rare beauty, striking and still relatively unfamiliar to audiences, despite her attention-grabbing turn in Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful.” This role further objectifies the actress, but does so in a less overtly sexual way, giving her character the strength to resist Jerome’s advances, ultimately building to a shameless climax that would have given even over-the-top countryman Claude Lelouch pause, one that inexplicably abandons its family-home setting for location work in Zanzibar and Shanghai. The real surprise of the ensemble is Karin Viard, whose role as the Varenne home wrecker — actually a warm and generous woman capable of having transformed a married man’s life for the better — defies Jerome’s assumptions, completing the picture of the late patriarch that, like the actual house where Rappeneau grew up, lives only in their memory and imagination.