If happiness consists of “having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city,” as George Burns once opined, then the paterfamilias of “The Wolberg Family” needs to move somewhere else pronto. Instead, the Jewish mayor of a French provincial town desperately tries to keep his family together at all costs in Gallic scripter Axelle Ropert’s remarkable helming debut. With its heightened language, pitch-perfect performances and precision lensing in gorgeous widescreen, pic could be a specialty item for Euro distribs willing to go the extra mile to support a young new talent.
A former film critic, Ropert has written the screenplays for the films directed by actor-director Serge Bozon (“Mods,” “La France”). All of her scripts feature a slightly offbeat treatment of their subjects and dialogue that has a certain theatricality to it, as if each character had a background in oratory and psychology. But rather than sounding unnatural, the heightened language simply puts the characters and their situations under a magnifying glass, giving auds a closer look at their psychological makeup and the issues they struggle with.
Head of the Wolberg family is Simon (Francois Damiens), the mayor of a town in the French Basque country. His wife Marianne (Valerie) and children, outgoing teenager Delphine (Leopoldine Serre) and silent kid Benjamin (Valentin Vigourt), all lead their own lives, which Simon finds hard to accept.
During the preparations for the 18th birthday of Delphine, things slowly start to unravel. The first indication something is wrong is the presence of Marianne’s bohemian brother, Alexandre (Bozon), who hates the ordered life of his brother-in-law. Alexandre suggests to his sister to simply leave her hubby if she’s not happy — though in her mind perhaps she already has.
In bed with his wife and later at the dinner table, dark-haired Simon starts to drop words like “lovers” and crack jokes about blond-haired men, which finally leads to a hilarious — and hilariously tragic — confrontation in the pouring rain. Shot in medium closeup, and with a clear shot/reverse shot rhythm that follows the (mostly) verbal punches, this sequence is a little marvel of directorial precision that is typical of the whole film.
As the incidents pile up and the cinematography grows increasingly darker, a complicated portrait of a family as a unit composed of individuals with different needs, desires and responsibilities comes into view. Result is reminiscent of Gallic hit “A Christmas Tale,” though on a smaller and less flashy scale.
Benguigui (“Comme t’y es belle”) has become the go-to actress for Jewish mother roles in Gaul, but her Marianne ranks with her more memorable turns. Belgian thesp Damiens makes Simon into a deeply conflicted character that also carries a secret with him that hangs heavy over the film’s second part. Supporting actors are all perfectly cast.
Velvety widescreen lensing by Celine Bozon (Serge’s sister) lends a sheen of plush bourgeois chic. Bozon often places the characters in the center of her compositions, which lends their dialogue — filmed in closeup — the air of “Big Brother”-style confessions.
Like in Ropert’s previous films as a screenwriter, music from the ’60s plays an important role, not only on the soundtrack but also, in the form of portraits of singers, on the walls of the Wolberg home.