Life is a Long Quiet River

February 22, 2011

I watched most of the new French film Life is a Long Quiet River without feeling much about it one way or the other. Then, in its last 10 minutes, this film turns so wicked, so devious and so satisfying, that I realized in retrospect just what a good movie it is.

It’s a sneaky film. It begins by presenting two utterly different families: The Le Quesnoys are the model of upper-middle-class circumspection, with every aspect of their lives neat, tidy and suburban. The Groseilles are their slobby, lower-class opposites; they fairly wallow in their own tackiness. The Le Quesnoy children are destined for higher education: the Groseille kids will likely end up sniffing glue.

Then, a revelation, from a dozen or so years earlier. It seems that, thanks to some drolly funny antipathy between the town doctor (veteran actor Daniel Gelin) and his mistress, a nurse (Catherine Heigel), a switch had taken place on the maternity ward. The Le Quesnoy baby and the Groseille baby, born virtually at the same time, were exchanged in their cradles. The secret has been held until now.

When the families find out about the gaffe, there is, of course, panic. The Le Quesnoys want to adopt their wayward son, but keep their mistaken “daughter”—after all, the child is used to a certain level of comfort, vrai? The Groseilles, for their part, are perfectly content with this arrangement, because the Le Quesnoys intend to furnish them with a healthy stipend for their trouble.

This set-up allows writer-director Étienne Chatiliez to score some points on the old nature vs. nurture debate. But if this sounds like a typically charming French comedy of manners, think again. Life is a Long Quiet River is a funny enough film, but it runs dark and deep and it displays considerable dubiousness about human nature. (The title, incidentally, is contradicted by one of the characters near the end of the film.)

There’s something utterly uncompromising about the way this movie sees the world. The actors, especially Hèléne Vincent and André Wilms as the wealthy parents, keep the characters from slipping into caricatures.

Chatiliez was a director of some reportedly outrageous TV commercials before he made this, his first feature film. Based on the evidence, he possesses a uniquely warped vantage point on the rest of us. May he remain productive.

First published in the Herald, 1988

One of the ideas of doing this 1980s website was to marvel at the realm of the how-did-that-ever-get-made? movie, a mode that was common at the time. But it also affords the chance to celebrate films that have, for a variety of reasons, slipped out of sight and mind—and this is one of those. The sardonic style of M. Chatiliez was honed in advertising, and I remember hearing that one of his really successful campaigns before debuting in feature films involved a TV ad for a fast-food chain that had a slogan like, “Look, if you’re going to eat shit, you might as well eat our shit.” The finale of this film is remarkable and leans on Mireille Mathieu’s full-throated rendition of the theme from Is Paris Burning? for much of its wicked effect. Chatiliez’s next feature, Tatie Danielle (about a mean old lady) got a U.S. release and some good notices, but it’s been hard to see his other work over here.


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