Happy Birthday – Movie review – A brilliantly executed family drama amidst the chaos and comedy of a family reunion

Listen to the beautiful song before you jump to read this long blog

Let me begin this review by quoting lines from l’amour a famous song sung by French singer Mouloudji which plays a crucial role in a particular scene in the film. “Love is love when I love you without telling you and when you love me without telling me” the beauty might have been lost in translation but the meaning is the same. This kind of love can only be felt and experienced in families. Happy birthday originally titled “Fete de Famille” loosely translates to the Family party. It is the birthday celebration of Andrea and her children Romain and Vincent come together to celebrate it. The plot twist comes within the few minutes in the form of her eldest daughter Claire who has been missing for the past three years. After the pleasant and not so pleasant pleasantries are exchanged she reveals her true intentions of coming here, to sell away their parents’ property and take her share. How the family deals with this situation and will Claire be able to satisfy her motive is what the rest of the film is all about.

The film starts with Andrea’s grand kids opening the gates of their home to us which makes us feel like we are part of the party. But this film plays along the fourth wall cleverly making you feel like a fly on it. A lot is going on, preparations of a play by her grand kids, children arriving and greeting her, which creates a festive atmosphere. Then there is Roman who comes along with his Argentinean girlfriend Rosita as an assistant and with plans of making a documentary out of their family reunion which will satisfy his whims of making an art film. There is a film within the film and a play within the film. These are just the layers the director adds to the script to make the film seem even more lovable and funny. But the most dramatic entry is reserved for the most dramatic character in the film Claire. She comes there when its raining cats and dogs as if to add more chaos and confusion to the reunion. 

Andrea and her family enjoying the play by kids

Claire is a complex character, she is a single mom who leaves her daughter Emma with her mom Andrea and leaves to the US after marrying someone else. She looks like she came back from a traumatic experience of handling a divorce. But she isn’t one of those spoilt brat children, her motives of getting money are clear, she is troubled from the marriage and further, a revelation comes that she isn’t the daughter of Andrea’s current husband jean but from a previous lover. She had a not so happy childhood, traumatic relationships, and unsuccessful business and she carries all this baggage along with her and comes home. Her daughter hates her, considers her evil but she showers all her love on her daughter. She makes a racist comment on her daughter’s boyfriend Julien who is black and Andrea handles it with Grace. The whole relationship dynamic between the three women, Andrea- Claire- Emma is portrayed beautifully in the film. Because Claire understands her daughter’s hatred for her as she felt the same for her mother. Andrea is compassionate towards Claire because she can understand what she has gone through. Andrea here stands as a bridge between Claire and Emma.

Andrea, Claire and Emma

All these details added to each other makes us realize that this isn’t an ideal happy family, but which family is? The birthday celebration of Andrea is not just a simple celebration, but the gratitude her children and grandchildren and the entire family whom she raised and struggled to put together, thanking its materfamilias. Catherine Deneuve is the amazing actress she is given her best as a compassionate mother Andrea and you will love her part. She acts as a frame that supports the entire picture. Actor-director Cedric Kahn as Vincent underplays his role as an actor and puts together a brilliant staging and performances as a director. Who comes as a surprise in this film is Vincent Macaigne as Romain, he plays his part as an art filmmaker with utmost conviction and brings laughs on every scene he is present in. I honestly believe that’s the toughest job to do being serious and yet adding something to this situational comedy. His part also seems like a subtle criticism the director of this film wanted to show on pseudo art filmmakers. In one particular scene when his family is seriously into a fight he runs to get his camera, by the time he gets it the fight is done. So he asks the family to take the positions and fight again, this scene filled the theatre with laughs and claps. When his family is enjoying themselves on their own he keeps discussing the camera angles with his girl Rosita and comparing them with Ozu, Godard and other filmmakers.

Master filmmaker Romain at work

But who steals the show in this film is Emmanuelle Bercot as Claire. She plays a character with many shades and constant mood swings with ease and brings the entire focus of the audience on her performance in the climax. She laughs, cries and gets angry at the people around her, all at the same time in one of the dinner scenes, and that’s a tough one to act and impress the audience with. In the final act when she bangs her head to the table the audience in utter silence and awe of her performance. This film is a very light-hearted take on the subject of family and relationships between siblings, but delivers a strong message of togetherness and also emphasizes the individuality of its members by the end of it.

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