In most cinematic worlds, the bureaucracy is a cold and sometimes malevolent thing. At best it’s portrayed as a necessary evil, a facilitator of the social contract that has the dirty job of making contentious interactions work, even if that means some of those involved are not going to be happy with the results. In Fabien Gorgeart’s melodrama The Family, the French equivalent of child services doesn’t really exert its full power until the end of the movie, but its presence is manifest throughout the plot development, adding a touch of suspenseful anxiety that Gorgeart and his very able actors exploit to full dramatic effect.
The titular unit is almost boringly average: Anna (Melanie Thierry) and Driss (Lyes Salem) live in a leafy suburb in middle class bliss with their three young children, Adrien (Idriss Laurentin-Khelifi), Jules (Basile Violette), and Simon (Gabriel Pavie). Simon, however, is a foster child who has been in the couple’s care since he was 18 months old, when his mother died and his father fell into a depression that prompted child services to remove Simon from his care. Now 6, Simon thinks of Anna and Driss as his parents, calling them mom and dad, and considers Adrien and Jules his siblings. Because they are good, educated people, Anna and Driss have never hidden Simon’s provenance from him, but the possibility that their idyll will be broken is something they don’t seem to have contemplated. Eventually, Simon’s father, Eddy (Felix Moati), recovered, writes to the judge in charge of his case asking that Simon be returned to his care. Things go slowly at first. Eddy gets afternoons with Simon who understands who he is but is not entirely comfortable. Eddy also understands what Anna and Driss mean to Simon and acts accordingly, allowing child services to speak for him in terms of asserting his rights as the biological father.
When the reckoning comes, it’s not pretty, mainly owing to a gross miscalculation on Anna’s part. Now, child services takes over. Their aim, as they put it so bluntly, has always been that a child be raised by their biological parent, and Anna always knew this. Her actions, they decide, have deliberately been an attempt to subvert this process, and she and her family have to pay the consequences.
What’s both affecting and frustrating about The Family is its matter-of-fact attitude toward the mission of public welfare, and how Gorgeart tries so hard to undermine our belief in that mission by piling on every sentimental cliche attached to the so-called ideal family. Until Eddy reenters Simon’s life, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the family he’s provisionally joined—no marital strife, no financial hardships, no sibling rivalries or resentments—and, in fact, much is made of how the knowledge of his provisional presence is what makes him more worthy of affection. In the end, though, we can’t blame child services, because they’ve been clear from the beginning what the stakes are, and the problem is simply one of unbounded maternal love, which is its own cliche, but one that Thierry handles with uncommon skill and, dare I say, restraint. There’s really no reason why The Family should be as emotionally devastating as it proves to be.
In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
The Family home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Deuxieme Ligne Films – Petit Film