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Cousin cousine
cast: Marie-Christine Barrault, Victor Lanoux, Marie-France Pisier, Guy Marchand, and Ginette Garcin

director: Jean Charles Tacchella

91 minutes (12) 1975
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
A strange blend of farce, romantic comedy and very French social drama, Cousin cousine tells the story of a couple who meet at a wedding. Reminiscent of the scenes from Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), the wedding is one of those daylong jobs full of eccentric relatives, old grudges and sexual liaisons as the vast network of cousins and marriages throw more than one pair of cousins together. However, the pairing that the film focuses on is the relationship between cousins by marriage Ludovic (Victor Lanoux) and Marthe (Marie-Christine Berrault).

Left alone when their respective unfaithful spouses decide to have a fling together, the cousins begin to forge a friendship. This starts with an innocent dance but then rapidly progresses to engineering 'chance' encounters, and the two sneaking off to spend the day together. Despite their partners having terrible track records when it comes to marital fidelity (and perhaps because of it), tongues begin to wag but while Ludovic and Marthe's spouses feel ashamed and horrified by what they think is an affair, they cannot say or do anything because they have been unfaithful too.

Before long, the cousin's 'affair' becomes common knowledge in the family, this pushes them to actually have an affair as if you're going to be treated as though you're having an affair, you might as well get the sex that goes with it. The cousins head to a hotel for an afternoon but the afternoon then stretches to a day and then to a weekend as their mutual desire grows and the anger of their spouses does too. The film then climaxes with the family get together on Christmas eve when the cousins offer to go and get a bottle of champagne but end up spending the entire evening shagging in one of the bedrooms, rubbing their sexuality in the faces of their hypocritical family right up until they decide to leave together.

Given the bed-hopping and its status as a comedy drama (or 'dramady' as nobody outside the BBC3 commissioning editor's office might call it), it would be easy to think of Cousin cousine as perhaps a comedy of manners that uses comedy as a sword with which to attack French social mores, but in truth the film is nothing like that. It is something unique. The central relationship between Ludovic and Marthe is played completely straight, as is their relationship with their respective spouses. The comedy, and the social criticism, instead comes from a lot of the peripheral characters that provide the film with its social context.

For example, at the first marriage, a pair of horny teenagers get naked, only for the boy to stop, frown and then inquire as to the exact nature of his filial ties to the teenaged girl. Meanwhile, Ludovic's daughter Nelsa (Catherine Verlor) regales the younger children with the family secrets and secretly taken photos that provoke an elder member of the family to silence her. So by using three peripheral teenaged characters, Tacchella has established that the protagonists are living in a France where people fall in and out of bed with each other all the time but one certainly never speaks of it. Indeed, in a wonderful series of scenes Marthe's husband decides to break up with all six of his mistresses before returning home to tell his wife that he's ended the relationships and now has nothing to feel guilty about. Indeed, both spouses have a long history of being unfaithful but what they cannot stand is that their partners are doing it to them and that they are doing it so indiscreetly that everyone in the family knows about it as again, the fact that these things go on is not a problem, rather it is people knowing about these dalliances that is problematic.

The fact that so much of the film's bite comes from the secondary and peripheral characters also serves to create an ocean of calm around the central couple, as if to say that the world is mad but suddenly it makes sense when the two cousins are together. Lanoux and Berrault make interesting leads as neither is particularly amazing to look at and neither actor has very much to work with. Indeed, the film is least effective when it is focusing on the couple. I suspect that this is a deliberate decision by the director in the hope of universalising the honesty of the central couple, thereby suggesting that he thinks that they are the normal people while it's the people who have affairs that are abnormal. Seen from a certain point of view this makes the film rather preachy, particularly given the fantastic 'just desserts' ending where the couple's spouses are completely humiliated but are powerless to protest because of their own transgressions. But despite this, the film never feels overtly moralistic; instead it lopes along smoothly with all the sensuality and gentle positivity of a balmy summer's evening.

Unfortunately devoid of extras, this is definitely a DVD that is worth seeing as it combines the intelligent discourse about sexuality and relationships that the French do so well without the angst and pomposity of a lot of French dramas with the broad social comedy we do so well in Britain without ever falling into the sentimentalism and hateful smugness of the films of Richard Curtis. It's a very clever and enjoyably light film.
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