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 of Andrea (Catherine Deneuve) and her children Romain (Vincent Macaigne) and Vincent (Cédric Kahn) come together to celebrate it. The plot twist comes within a few minutes in the form of her eldest daughter, Claire (Emmanuelle Bercot), 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 how Claire will be able to satisfy her motive is what the rest of the film is all about.
Happy Birthday starts with Andrea’s grandkids 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 grandkids, children arriving and greeting her, which creates a festive atmosphere. Then there is Romain who comes along with his Argentinean girlfriend Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola) 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 and a play within the film.
These are just the layers the director adds to the script to make the film 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.
Claire is a complex character, she is a single mother who leaves her daughter, Emma (Luàna Bajrami), with Andrea and then leaves to the United States, after marrying. She looks like she’s came back from the traumatic experience of handling a divorce. But she isn’t one of those spoiled brat children, her motives of getting money are clear; she is troubled from her marriage and further, it’s revealed that she isn’t the daughter of Andrea’s current husband, Jean (Alain Artur). Claire had a not so happy childhood, traumatic relationships, and an unsuccessful business. Claire carries all this baggage along with her when she comes home. Her daughter hates her and considers her evil and yet, Claire showers all of her love onto her daughter.
Claire makes a racist comment about Emma’s boyfriend, Julien (Joshua Rosinet), 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. Claire understands her daughter’s hatred for her as she felt the same for her own mother. Andrea is compassionate towards Claire because she can understand what she has gone through. And Andrea stands as a bridge between Claire and Emma.
All of these details make us realize that this isn’t an ideal happy family, but what family is? Andrea’s birthday is not just a simple celebration, but rather a show of the gratitude her children, grandchildren, and entire family, whom she raised and struggled to put together, have for her. Andrea’s birthday celebration is more of the family thanking its materfamilias.
Catherine Deneuve, the amazing actress she is, gives her best as a compassionate mother 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 while putting together 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 into every scene he is present in. I honestly believe that’s the toughest job to do, being serious and yet shaping this situational comedy. Macaigne’s part seems like a subtle criticism that Cedric Kahn, the director, 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 over. 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 Rosita and comparing them to Ozu, Godard, and other filmmakers.
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 roll to fill and impress the audience with. In the final act, when she bangs her head to the table, the audience was 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.