20th century father of psychology Carl Jung said ‘everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves’.
Extraordinary crowds of people have turned out all over France to see this movie, which makes you laugh, think, and perhaps even cry.
In many quarters it has been lauded as a movie to be celebrated, while in yet others it has become embroiled in controversy.
The French film industry would prefer for it to be a feel good movie, although by the nature of its subject it is open to interpretation.
Rodolphe Belier (Francois Damiens), his wife Gigi (Karin Viard), his son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) and his daughter Paula (Louane Emera) all live on a dairy farm in a picturesque rural area of France, a few hours drive from Paris.
Paula and Quentin are involved in birthing calves overnight, milking cows early each morning prior to leaving to cycle to a nearby village to school. At the end of the day there are more chores as well, but this is an integral part of the rhythm of their lives and what normality feels like to them.
Wreaking havoc on the rest of her family to pursue her own dreams is not something the selfless Paula imagines she will ever have to face.
However just like us all as we awaken out of childhood into the adult ways of the world, being informed she can sing and should pursue a professional career suddenly threatens the pattern of all their lives.
There is no doubt they will face challenges of massive change because she would have to go and live in Paris, far away from the family she loves. But there’s more.
The Belier’s are a family much like any other, although in their case everyone in the family is deaf, except for Paula.
Paula has by default become the family ‘voice’ in the hearing world.
Paula is Louane Emera, a delightful fresh new talent, a young woman with an inner radiance that lights up the screen with a warming glow that lingers long afterwards.
She inhabits this role and all its many responsibilities with a fresh innocence of mind and spirit.
This was young Louane Emera’s first role and it led to her receiving the prestigious 2015 César Award for France’s Most Promising Actress.
As far as her performance in this movie that has all involved engaged in controversy is concerned, it was certainly well deserved.
It is an impressive acting debut.
One of the biggest challenges we face in our world today is ensuring that all those who believe they are on the outside of mainstream society such as those experiencing disability, are in fact inclusive to it.
Disabilities can take on many forms and no matter how hard we try to approach sensitive subjects in an enlightened way it seems there will always be someone upset by other people’s choices. We can only change that by talking more about the things that hurt.
If this movie engages people in meaningful conversation by raising awareness of how we all think then it is a step forward for society.
People are people and we come in all shapes and forms and with either the burden or benefit of our upbringing, which helps shape who we are.
As much as she can Paula has managed to keep her family out of the spotlight at her school where she’s aware many of her fellow students are highly prejudiced, especially when it comes to difference.
Her only friend Mathilde (Roxane Duran) knows, but that is as far as it goes.
The town mayor being politically correct as he goes out of his way to talk to the family on their weekly market stall where they sell the superb cheese they make, only reveals that his sincerity is about as shallow as the puddle left from last night’s rain.
He, and the Belier family are all tested to the full when Rodolphe decides to run against the mayor for election.
With her father in trouble in his campaign Paula is actively supporting him as her time allows.
Paula however does not know which way to turn herself, suddenly discovering she has a talent for singing when testing out for the school choir.
Paula has joined simply because of a new boy Gabriel (Ilian Bergala) she’s attracted to, and having a ‘voice’ completely takes her unawares and just adds to her many challenges.
Her choirmaster (Eric Elmosnino) is not only demanding, but also blissfully unaware of her unique circumstances.
He endeavours to help her prepare to enter a competition to win a place at a prestigious music school.
When she doesn’t turn up for a lesson because of having to help her family, he throws a tantrum and all but slams the door on her opportunity
Paula has no support because her family does not know what is really going on.
They think she has a ‘boyfriend’ for the first time and so by deceiving everyone her dilemma only keeps growing in scale.
Then she has to tell them and when she does her parents react badly, particularly her mother.
They have become far too reliant on their daughter to survive in the real world without her, well so they think at first when they are all in ‘high dudgeon’.
In the end they calm down and do rally around her as she tries out for the place in Paris and threatens to fly away.
Movies like this provide a capsule snapshot for society so we can reflect on how we engage with others especially those experiencing disability in our world.
If it does nothing else but raises awareness of how we need to encourage inclusivity then it has achieved, despite the controversy that surrounds it.
Part of the outrage is that hearing people were chosen to play the parents rather than deaf people, who are also seen as being just the butt of the jokes.
Deaf people view this choice of the director as one of disrespect.
Now I do not know the pool of deaf actors they could have called upon in France, certainly the cinematic industry in other parts of the world do call upon disabled people to take roles today.
Part of the controversy however is over the standard of their hearing actor’s ‘sign language’, something I cannot buy into visually because I am not informed on this aspect of the argument at all.
Surely though in thinking about it, sign language would be open to interpretation, just like spoken language is for hearing people.
So if we take it a hearing person’s point of view in the main they would probably prefer to hear English spoken well. However that’s a big expectation we have all learned to make allowances for, some more than others.
Every day on the train, in the city and out and about English is spoken with crass expletives added, inserted sometimes at ever second word, which many would find offensive in the extreme. Learning to live in the moment and not being rattled by these salient points is indeed difficult.
The Belier Family is a story for our time and packs a solid emotional punch, despite the controversy surrounding it.
With her parents in the audience to see Paula sing her duet with Gabriel the director removes the sound as the song moves to its climax.
Its all about helping hearing people better understand what it would be like to live in a world where you could not hear your child sing although are able to appreciate that your child has talent by watching how all those around you react as do her parents by being in the audience.
The actors all take on their roles responsibly and provide solid, often fine performances
The French movie The Belier Family highlights how important it is for both our social and cultural development that we keep on endeavouing to understand each other yet more by talking more about the things that hurt.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015