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C'est la vie! (2017).Thibault Grabherr/Courtesy of Quad Productions / Mingo2

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars
  • C’est la vie!
  • Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano
  • Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Gilles Lellouche
  • PG
  • 117 minutes
  • Opening March 30 in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa

Cinemagoers may be forgiven if they feel they have attended Pierre and Héléna’s nuptials before: The well-dressed guests cluster around the white-clothed tables for a sumptuous feast, but the groom’s speech is a snore-fest, the band is stricken with food poisoning and the bride is now dancing with a waiter. The wedding comedy is familiar territory, and yet, long before this groom is floating above his guests on a huge white balloon, it’s clear that the French writing-directing team of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano is capable of taking the genre to new heights.

C’est la vie! was the Toronto International Film Festival’s choice for its traditionally light-hearted closing gala last September, and it’s a much smarter movie than Nakache and Toledano’s previous hit, 2011’s wildly successful but controversial comic drama The Intouchables. If that film, about a paraplegic French aristocrat and his Senegalese caregiver, suffered from a condescending sentimentality that American critics denounced as outright racism, C’est la vie! offers a much wider and richer social palette. Part of its secret is that it approaches a big party from the point of view of those who make it: C’est la Vie! is a movie about the catering team.

Its put-upon protagonist is Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri), an acerbic event planner wrangling a fractious gang of bumbling waiters and huffy musicians. The demanding and unpleasant groom, Pierre, has hired Max’s company to organize a spectacular reception in a 17th-century chateau somewhere outside Paris, but narcissistic Pierre and his apparently oblivious bride are the least of Max’s problems. The planner rules over a web of personal and professional sub-plots that include a crisis in his extra-marital affair with a business partner; the vicious battle between his foul-mouthed assistant and the arrogant band leader; and the inappropriate behaviour of several waiters, including Max’s pedantic brother-in-law, a former school teacher who now recognizes the bride as the long-lost love of his life.

Of course, much of this is improbable or only half-explained – neither the food poisoning nor Max’s encounter with someone who wants to buy his business make much sense – but much of it is also very funny, not as slapstick, which it isn’t, but as social comedy. The movies love weddings not merely for the pageantry but also because they gather a diverse cast of characters in a single space filled with emotional expectations. A wedding is a potential microcosm of the human comedy. Here, the film is studded with delicious bits of well-observed character work from a uniformly strong ensemble, beginning with the introduction, in which Bacri’s exasperated Max dismisses a young couple who are trying to pare down the budget for their big day, and continuing through to scenes where the strutting band leader (Gilles Lellouche) does his sound check and the old-school photographer (Jean-Paul Rouve) elbows aside the groom’s mother and her smart phone.

There are also some intriguingly deeper observations: Neither the race nor the sex of Max’s black and female number-two, Adèle, are ever mentioned, but Eye Haidara delivers a highly sensitive comic portrayal of a prickly personality who has only survived in the business by biting first. Similarly, the decision to forego the stereotype of the spoiled bride in favour of an obsessive groom – delightfully animated by Benjamin Lavernhe as the egomaniacal Pierre – is an inspired one. It bears wondrous fruit in the film’s outrageous climax, making this a wedding to celebrate. ​

C’est la vie! opens March 30 in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa.

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