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Published on Tuesday 26th of January 2016 by Valerie

La Famille Belier, the film at the centre of last year’s every French conversation

When ‘La Famille Belier’ came out on the French screens in December 2014, it was the topic of many French conversation. Was it the best film you could ever see? Probably not. But add to it a bit of the Christmas spirit, a good dose of French popular music nostalgia and a mix of humour and tenderness and you get the secret of its success. The story is fairly simple: Sixteen year old Paula’s family are all deaf and mute, except for her. She has become their interpreter in their daily interactions with the outside world and they, as well as the farming business they run, have come to rely increasingly upon Paula. That is, until Paula unexpectedly discovers her love and talent for singing. A big opportunity opens Paula’s horizon: To enter a competition that will allow her entry to Les Choeurs de Radio France, one of the most prestigious music schools in France. The only problem is that the school is in Paris. Can Paula leave her family to fend for themselves or should she follow her dream?

When director Eric Lartigau made the film, he was in deep collaboration with the deaf and mute community. One of the important issue Lartigau wanted to put across is the desire of people who are deaf and mute to be treated just like other people. Lartigau succeeded in some respect, showing that they are as many intelligent and idiotic individuals in both worlds. The existing mayor of the town is as much of an imbecile as one of the villager who is deaf. Paula’s father decides to run as mayor himself with the ironic slogan: “Nou vous entendons” (we hear you), hence showing that his handicap isn’t an obstacle to doing what he wants to do. However, the most appealing theme of the film is Paula’s dilemma. Far more than addressing issues faced by the deaf community, Lartigau raises an issue we can all empathise with: Leaving your family to take your first step into adulthood. We’ve all been there and Paula expresses it brilliantly at the end of the film with the song she has chosen for her audition: ‘Je Vole’ (I fly) by Michel Sardou. The audition is made even more poignant by Paula singing and signing at the same time for her deaf parents in the audience and by actress Karine Viard’s (Paula’s mother) reaction.

As for the music, any French person who was a teenager in the 80’s grew up with the songs of Michel Sardou. When one of the youngster in the film suggested to their grumpy and jaded music teacher that may be they could tackle something a bit more modern, his answer was: “Sardou is to popular music what Mozart was to classical”. Well, may be that’s pushing it a bit and even Michel Sardou chuckled at the proposition. But there’s no harm in revisiting the music of your childhood and the truth is, his songs were really good!

Is ‘La Famille Belier’ a classic piece of French cinema? I wouldn’t go so far. But I know that it made me want to do two things: revisit Michel Sardou’s music and learn sign language. I must confess that with regards to the latter, I’ve only been as far as saying my name in sign language. But that’s a good start to any French conversation, isn’t it?

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