"Life is a Long Quiet River"
what a magnificently poetic title, it doesn't give much hints about the story except the essential: it's about life, what happens, what is under our control, and the bad we take with the good. That a comedy would inspire such profound thoughts says a lot about the 80's: comedies were more mature and clever, eager to tell a good story with a few laughs rather than a laugh-riot that falls flat.
Etienne Chatillez, who showed his talent as a director-writer of sociologically-themed movies, signed his first little masterpiece about family and clash of classes. "Life is a Long Quiet River" is about two families that couldn't have been more opposite: the Duquesnois and the Groseilles. There's a reality about large families: you've got to be either very rich or very poor to afford many children, and that's exactly the demographic categories the two families fit in. The Duquesnois are the typical Catholic bourgeois with very straitlaced parents, sending their children to private school where they can be taught catechism and good manners. The Groseilles exemplify the 'Beaufs' archetypes, people of modest social upbringing, loudmouth, vulgar, crass, greedy, and no, they don't have a good heart, the film is above these patronizing clichés.
It is true that the Groseilles seem more fun but the Duquesnois aren't ridiculed and that's the first hint of the film's intelligence: it doesn't need to make fun of the characters, they behave naturally and the comedic situations naturally emerge from the story. One of the most memorable moments is the iconic "Jesus, come back" song that has nothing ridiculous about it, but because it's set within the context of a comedy and because the priest, played by Patrick Bouchitey, is so passionately into the music, the scene has become a staple of French comedy, proof that it's all about a good timing. And timing is what the main plot is about, a Doctor dismisses his mistress (also his nurse) during his wife's funeral, indifferent to her cleavage delicately hidden behind black lace.
So she takes her revenge and reveals the truth behind that fateful Christmas night twelve years before, where he rejected her one time too many and she switched the two Duquesnois and Groseille newborns. As the doctor said, they wouldn't start life with the same chances and I wonder if Chatillez wasn't inspired by that scene in "Once Upon a Time in America" where the gangsters switch babies and James Woods' character says something like "We're better than fate. Some we give the good life, others we give it up the ass." That nurse indeed played a dirty trick and the reaction of the doctor (Daniel Gelin) is a classic, he repeats the bitch word several times and it's so cruel we never feel the word is repeated enough, it is realistic yet funny.
And now, let's make a pause, here you have the premise; two babies switched at birth, how are you going to work on that? Any lesser comedy would have gone to the obvious "Trading Places" format, and the film would have gone for cheap gags based on lousy comedy of contrasts between the rich and the poor people, overused at the expense of realism and common sense. But Chatillez thinks realistically and doesn't go for the obvious to make the audience laugh, he cares for his characters a little more and that's the respect a director owes his audience. So he asks the simple question: what would a poor family do if they knew their boy was connected to a rich one? And why would a girl raised in wealth and comfort be transferred to a lesser standard of life? The film reveals its genius in one of its most famous shots.
Momo Groseille, who should have been Maurice Duquesnois has just been told the truth, he's played by a young Benoit Magimel and he's obviously startled by the news, he looks at his family staring at him like the new outsider but then he recovers from the surprise and in the most deadpan and natural way, says that they can make money out of it. And as to make up for the 'loss' of Momo, the Duquesnois give money to the Groseilles, the father (André Wilms) is no fool, he knows what the Groseilles are into but he does it for Momo's good and this is the best thing about the film, it has a sweetness of its own. And it paints a very touching family portrait of the two families, and perhaps the most touching character is Marielle Duquesnois, the mother, played by Hélène Vincent.
I don't think I have enough kind words for her but she's a sweet and responsible mother who cares for her children, telling them that Momo was adopted not to upset Bernadette, who is the Groseilles' daughter. The movie doesn't focus much on Bernadette except on some specially heartbreaking moments where she meets her family and when she tries to escape, the film tactfully tries not to make fun of all the situations and reckons the dramatic potential of the story. A similar moment occurs when Momo watches his mother in the bathroom. And he's like hypnotized, he feels in love, this is not a love of lust but of unconscious Oedipal attraction, and it's understandable as long as we accept that she's not supposed to be his mother, but the scene shows that Chatillez pushes his concept as far as he can as long as it feels real, which it does.
Chatillez makes a little rushed out third act concluding with a series of disjointed events showing that the experience changed the two families, there's a feeling of unfinished result that might disconcert the viewers, but after all, the story didn't have to have a proper ending, just like a long quiet river doesn't have to end somewhere
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