Kind-hearted realism and spirited thesping are very much the fashion in “Copacabana,” a wryly observed sophomore dramedy from scribe-helmer Marc Fitoussi (“La Vie d’artiste”). Set in the hottest spot north of, um, Ghent, this amusing tale of a Boho mom who enters the time-share biz to win back her daughter’s love starts off on shaky ground, but soon finds its footing thanks largely to Isabelle Huppert, appearing here in carefree comic mode rather than her usual ice-queen routine. Backed by a strong Franco-Flemish cast and generally efficient storytelling, pic should cha-cha among arthouse distribs after its Cannes Critics’ Week premiere.
Despite its title and a soundtrack that includes songs by Astrud Gilberto and Jorge Ben, “Copacabana” has little to do with Brazil and much to do with Belgium. It’s there that, following a disconcerting first-reel setup, the unemployed and single Babou (Huppert) heads to sell beachfront apartments in the northern resort town of Ostend, which looks in the winter like the kind of place where Michael Haneke or Bruno Dumont would gladly spend a weekend.
Babou is what the French call a “baba-cool,” a sort of bourgeois hippie who never held down a steady job, and dragged her daughter Esmeralda (Lolita Chammah) from one country to the next in search of the ultimate laid-back lifestyle. But now that Esmeralda is grown up and about to marry clean-cut salesman Justin (Joachim Lombard), Babou needs to prove she has the chops to be the kind of hardworking, old-fashioned mom her daughter now needs.
When she lands the real estate gig, it’s here that the narrative really picks up interest and humor, as the story transforms into a cleverly framed study of the highly competitive (and equally dubious) business of vacation time-share sales. Ever the iconoclast, Babou remains her insouciant self, but still finds a way to outperform her fiercest rival, Irene (Chantal Banlier, hilarious), eventually becoming the favorite of cutthroat middle manager Lydie (Aure Atika, on point).
What’s most enjoyable about Fitoussi’s characters is how few concessions they make — these folks are what they are, and because they’re mostly blue-collar, they have no choice but to work and stick together despite obvious differences. Thus, when Babou meets local dockworker Bart (the generous Jurgen Delnaet, from “Moscow, Belgium”) and promptly begins an affair, it’s clear to us (though not at first to Bart) that she’s simply enjoying herself but will never be in it for the long term.
Huppert is hugely believable as Babou, making her seem less like the flighty New Age type then like someone who approaches life with eager curiosity, only to be ready to move on as soon as things grow dull. Her relationship with Esmeralda is characterized by the latter’s rebellion against everything mom stands for, while Babou is forced to somewhat grin and bear her daughter’s conservativeness, until eventually stepping in to give a loving and helping hand.
Tech credits are solid, with Helene Louvart (“The Beaches of Agnes”) capturing the depressing contempo decors with natural lighting that shows hints of warmth.