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April 2010

The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

cast: Jacques Gamblin, Zabou Breitman, Pio Marmaï, Déborah François, and Marc-André Grondin

director: Rémi Bezançon

108 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

All drama must walk a line. On one side of this line lies the Scylla of insight. On the other side of the line is the Charybdis of emotional accessibility. Steer your dramatic ship too far in one direction and you wind up with characters going through emotional turmoil so opaque and so specific, that your drama undeniably reveals new truths about human nature, but those truths are so limited that the audience cannot engage with them and the actors cannot convey them. Imagine a director telling his actors to project an erotic disappointment with the concept of forbearance and you'll get a decent idea of the problem I am talking about.

However, steer your ship too far in the opposite direction and you get characters filled with emotions so universally generic that your work ceases to be dramatic entirely. The key to choosing the right course is to mix a degree of insight with the right amount of emotional accessibility. A good example of films that get the mix right are the middlebrow Oscar-fodder pieces that generally deliver outstanding performances only to be promptly forgotten as time passes.

Think of a film like Doubt (2008), or As Good As It Gets (1997): both very much talked about at the time, both award-winning and both completely forgettable. These types of films deliver no lasting insights but have enough about them and enough simplicity that a director can easily coax a few memorable performances out of his cast - particularly when that cast is made up of actors who made their names portraying a range of emotions further towards the Scylla of insight.

Rémi Bezançon's The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life (aka: Le premier jour du reste de ta vie) has won a couple of Cesar awards for its acting. It did not win any awards for its script or direction. It did not win the award for best film. It does not arrive on our shores with the kind of buzz you associate with a triumphant summer spent touring the film festivals. It is a film which, though neatly directed, is entirely over the line into emotional accessibility. The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life deals exclusively in clichés and predictable emotional responses and, while it does so in quite an elegant fashion, its refusal to say anything interesting or challenging results in a drama that is utterly lightweight and stridently melodramatic.

We start well with a montage of family pictures and home movies. As the credits roll, we are introduced to the Duvals and their three children as they appear. This montage does a good job of conveying some of the personalities and some of the relations between the members of the family. Then the actual film begins...

The film's big idea is that rather than following the characters for a period of weeks or months, it instead focuses upon the events that take place on five particular days. Five days, five characters. Five days, five life-changing experiences. We begin with the day in which oldest son Al (Pio Marmaï) puts his dog to sleep and then moves out in order to live in a flat owned by his grandfather. His mother is heart-broken, but he meets a girl when he plays his music too loud.

From there we move on to the youngest daughter Fleur (Déborah François) who loses her virginity to the worst possible person on the day of her 16th birthday. Despite the 'blood and tears' (as one character charmlessly puts it) she is soon back in the saddle, trying to pull one of her brother's friends. Then we have quirky mother Marie-Jeanne (Zabou Breitman) who has moved from 'empty nest syndrome' to going back to university and from university to art-school bohemianism.

Next up is younger brother Raph (Marc-André Grondin) who takes part in an air guitar competition, meets and girl, loses girl's number and then moves back in and starts to regress but with a sudden desire to spend time with his wine-loving grandfather. Finally, we have laidback pater familias Robert (Jacques Gamblin) who learns that he has a terrible illness and decides to spend a day reuniting the family by patching things up with his wife and his children. As the credits roll, we see more family movies but instead of conveying the sense of a life starting up, the films convey a sense of a family looking back at where it has come and grieving for the loss of someone they loved without quite realising it.

For a film that is nearly two hours long, The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life is worryingly easy to synopsise. This is because it is a film that deals only in big primary coloured emotions: we have the trauma of a child leaving home, the trauma of mortal illness, the trauma of death, the trauma of a disastrous love affair, the trauma of a ruined wedding, and the trauma of a car crash.

This simple-mindedness is partly a result of lazy screenwriting on the part of Bezançon and partly a result of the film's one-day-at-a-time structure which means that it deals much better with big life-changing events than it does with the drip-drip-drip of real human emotions and psychological change. Indeed, the film's tagline "this family is your family" seems to suggest that the degree of emotional genericness is almost intentional, as though Bezançon decided to completely avoid Scylla and sail his ship quite happily into the churning waters of emotionally accessibility.

As mind-numbingly dumb as this strategy is, there is no denying that it does allow the director and the actors to do quite well. Bezançon keeps the camera moving with some grace while his choice of soundtrack and use of music makes sure that the film's emotional notes ring out loud and clear. Meanwhile, the actors also have quite a good day: Breitman is pleasingly ditzy as a beautiful woman and mother struggling to find a place for herself in the world while Grondin does a brilliant job combining a sense of purposeful aimlessness.

Simply put, if you like broad soap-operatic dramas full of melodrama and people screaming and stomping out the room then you will love The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life. However, if you think that drama should actually say something (anything) about the human condition or the state of society then do not both. The French critics were quick to compare the film to the HBO series Six Feet Under but a better choice would be an EastEnders Christmas special.

The DVD comes with a beautiful and well-designed menu that sadly only takes you to a trailer and one of those pointless 'making of' documentaries in which everyone talks about how much fun they are having and how great the film is.

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