Lavaine Moves Into Social Comedy With ‘Back to Mom’s’

‘Barbecue’ director’s latest gets its market premiere at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous

Back to Mom's Alexandra Lamy, Josiane
Courtresy of Pathe Intl.

Popular French comedy director Eric Lavaine (“Barbecue”) explores social comedy in his most recent film “Retour chez ma Mère” (“Back to Mom’s”) which is to be released by Pathé in early 2016. The film tells the story of a successful architect in her early forties (Alexandra Lamy) who has recently lost her father, her business and divorced her husband, losing custody of her son. Penniless, she returns to live with her mother (Josiane Balasko), but feels ashamed about her sudden change in fortunes. Lushly lensed in Aix-en-Provence, Lavaine adopts a highly personal approach for the pic, inspired in part by his own life experiences, but focusing primarily on the female leads. Whereas the mother seems to be very old school and out of touch with modernity, during the course of the film she reveals that her thinking is actually far more modern than that of her children. Variety interviewed the director to explain what drove him to make the film, which Pathe Intl. is bringing onto the market at the Paris UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

This film is a comedy, a hallmark of your directing style, but it is also a family drama, that addresses important personal issues.  The comedy is highly biting and derives primarily from the situations created. Do you see this as a new step in your career? 

To make people laugh is a way of communicating with others, a nice way. It’s often through drama that you find the situations that generate the most comedy. Those who never had the giggles during a funeral should throw the first stone at me! My last film, “Barbecue,” wasn’t about the art of grilling sausages. It was a chance to talk about a subject that really matters to me: Friends and the erosion of friendship. This time, with ”Back to Mom’s,” I approach the family and the tiniest problems that can arise. With my co-writer, Hector, we used our respective families as inspirations. Henceforth, without disowning my old movies as «very (too much?) comedy», I aim to use a world that I know very well: My life.

In your previous feature film, “Barbecue,” the main character was a divorced man going through a mid-life crisis. This time your main character is a woman in a major mid-life crisis. Did the experience of making “Barbecue” inspire some of the ideas for this new film?

We need an inciting incident in order to tell a story, in “Barbecue,” it was the main character’s heart attack; in “Back to Mom’s,” it’s the return of a 40 year old woman to her family house who will trigger a family crisis.

The mother (Josiane Balasko) seems to understand more about life and love than her daughters (Alexandra Lamy and Mathilde Seigner). What interested you in terms of this anguish of the main female characters?

What I like about Josiane Balasko’s character is that she’s the kind of mother who seems “old school” and outdated on so many levels (her incapacity to use modern technology such as the Internet for example) but she’s in fact a lot more “modern” in her head than her daughters. She doesn’t bother with outdated morals or manners. She loves her kids and since she loves them, she wants them to be happy. She asks for reciprocity from them. She’s been having a lover for a very long time and she’s been able to balance her love for her husband and for the neighbor living upstairs. Now that her husband is dead, she wants to make it “official.”

Beneath the comedy of “Back to Mom’s,” there is a very serious undertone of the plight of someone who has suddenly lost everything, in part as a result of the economic crisis, which is particularly acute for a woman in her early ‘40s. Was it difficult to strike the right balance between comedy and drama?

In France, more than 450,000 adults are forced, for economic reasons or divorce, to start living with their parents again. It isn’t in the nature of things and for those adults it is perceived as a real and true failure. But behind the tragedy hide a goldmine of potentially comedic situations: how to cohabit with your old parents? How to live with your sexuality? How to refuse to play Scrabble without hurting your mother’s feelings?

One of the pic’s main themes is that in certain moments in life people need to “return to the womb” to learn from the wisdom of their parents. What attracted you to this theme?

In France we use an expression in English “home sweet home.” But when you’re an adult, your “home sweet home” is your own “home,” not your parents’ home. Of course, when you have an 85-year-old mother in great shape, like me, you need to go and get some comfort from time to time, at her house. She listens to me, she loves me, I’m her son… but a son who is happy not to live full time in her house. As one of the characters in my film says: “I love my mother, but one lunch with her is the most I can do, one weekend is already too much!”

The casting plays a decisive role in the film. Did you already have the cast in mind when you wrote the screenplay? How was the casting decided?

We wrote the characters without any ideas of what the casting would be, expect for the mother for whom I directly thought of Josiane Balasko. I love her maternal side, very Italian “mama.” For the rest of the cast and specifically for Stephanie, the lead, I needed an actress who would be capable of playing comedy, and at the same time, who would be capable of moving the audience… and who would be popular if we needed to find good funding: Alexandra Lamy filled all of those requirements. 
And like every directors, I have pet favourites and I really wanted to work with Mathilde Seigner and (re)work with Jérome Commandeur.

Most of the film is bathed in a golden light, whether in the interiors or exteriors. The choice to film in Aix-en-Provence adds to this. Why were you seeking this “look” for the film?

I spend part of the year in Marseille and I love the lights and colors of the south! Even if my film is taking place mainly inside an apartment, I wanted a warm and golden color. If we succeeded it’s thanks to my DP François Hernandez because the apartment we shot in is located around 834km away from Aix en Provence; right in front of the Presidential Palace of the Elysée to be specific !

The film has great unity of space and time, with much of the action taking place in the family home and in the space of 1-2 days. Did this pose a challenge when writing the script? 

The film is almost taking place in real time and in one location, like a Greek tragedy. The difficulty in the writing is to achieve the characterization of each characters because we don’t see them in their “exterior” life. By the way, if the film is a success, I would like to adapt it as a play.

Comedy is notoriously difficult to travel, and some of the dialogue involves word plays that are difficult to translate to other languages. Has this been a challenge for preparing the international subtitled version of the film?

You are touching on one of the principal pitfalls of my film. How to translate typical French word plays and expressions? Actually, we are working on internationals versions, by making translators and “locals humorists” collaborate. They will help us to make sure the spirit of the film is understandable for other countries. As for the Martian and Venusian versions, we’re still looking…