Legit scribe Yasmina Reza makes an assured transition to bigscreen helming with her femme-centric family drama “Chicas.” Inspired by her stage piece “A Spanish Play” and unquestionably dialogue-focused, pic reveals an eye for cinematic language that attests to a considered understanding of the medium. Immeasurably assisted by topnotch thesps who clearly understand the sisterly alliances and barbs behind the linguistic nuances, “Chicas” should find a Stateside arthouse niche based on Reza’s international rep, though French B.O. following an early March release was decidedly muted.
Accompanied by her movie-star daughter, Nuria (Emmanuelle Seigner), Paris-based widow Pilar (Carmen Maura) sells some land in Malaga and breaks all physical ties to her Spanish homeland. Pilar favors the glamorous Nuria over her two older daughters, basking in reflected fame and transposing a mild obsession with looks onto her prettiest child, who shares her mother’s concern for surface appearances.
Aurelia (Valerie Dreville) is an actress like her younger sister, but struggles with her career; Pilar’s obvious partiality to Nuria has made Aurelia bitter, and her schlubby husband, Maurice (Bouli Lanners), is only fitfully supportive. Eldest sis Christal (Christele Tual) can’t stand the family dynamics and lives far away in Toulouse, embarrassing her young sons with her forced youthful exuberance while taking up with a lover, Patrick (Philippe Uchan).
Pic’s setpiece is a lunch organized by Pilar so Nuria and Aurelia can get to know her new b.f., Fernand (Andre Dussollier). As she’s demonstrated in acclaimed plays such as “God of Carnage” and “Art,” Reza has a masterful ear for dialogue, mixing festering wounds and thoughtless attacks into conversations that lay bare family dynamics far better than any blatant statement of intent. The sisters ridicule their mother behind her back, poking fun at her need for companionship (without exploring their own faults in that department) and freezing out the well-meaning Fernand whenever he attempts to add his two cents.
Though the start is a bit too expository, and it’s not clear Reza knows where she wants to end the story, she’s thought hard about the differences between stage and screen. Two scenes in particular stand out for their understanding of the medium. Extended closeups of Nuria reveling in the feel of a new dress show off Reza’s pleasure in the impressionistic qualities of fabric in motion, wordlessly conveying the tactile joys of movement and color. Shortly after, Christal asks her lover, “What would you say if I were pregnant?” Reza heightens tension by leaving Patrick out of the frame and making auds understand his reaction solely via Christal’s expression.
Should Reza choose to take up a director’s megaphone again (and signs indicate she will), it’s likely she’ll continue to play with the form, expanding her visual vocabulary while perhaps reining in some of the more stagy elements that creep in.
There’s not a weak note among the cast: Seigner’s occasional distancing, hermetic qualities are nowhere to be seen, and like her cinema siblings, she beautifully renders the contradictory impulses of self-doubt, jealousy and love within most nuclear families. Maura, always a delight, displays a girlish grin that, while rooted in fresh love, doesn’t disguise her character’s flaws, though the actress even makes Pilar’s egotism forgivable. Fernand is something of a third wheel at times, but Dussollier brings out a special warmth that overrides the character’s built-in bore factor.
Lucky with her actors, Reza is especially fortunate in her choice of d.p.: Antoine Heberle (“Paradise Now”) gives the pic an intimacy without a sense of claustrophobia, keeping the lensing attractive but not showy. A nicely saturated flashback of mother and her three daughters from behind, some 30 years earlier, adds a pleasantly nostalgic flavor, and the Gypsy Kings keep the family’s Spanish origins alive with colorful tunes.