Lucien Paumelle (Michel Aumont) has always had strong convictions. A retired doctor, he remains an active man, renowned for his commitment to many humanitarian causes. His commitment even leads him to marry a young Moldavian woman, Tatiana (Veronica Novak), so as to save her from deportation. But his children, Babette (Karin Viard) and Arnaud (Fabrice Luchini), rapidly realise that their father's behavior no longer has much in common with the principles he's always advocated: although 80 years old, could Lucien have succumbed to the charms of his flamboyant wife?

4
A dynamic family drama.

FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: At first glance My Father’s Guests, in which a liberal-minded, well-to-do French family takes in an illegal migrant, looks as if it’s going to be a liberal-minded, humanitarian drama in the vein of last year’s movingly compassionate Welcome. That quickly proves not to be the case. Co-writing with Luc Béraud, actor-turned-director Anne Le Ny has fashioned a witty, spry and marvelously observed comedy-drama in which characters rarely do the obvious while never behaving out of character.

The middle-aged siblings, sister Babette (Karin Viard), a doctor, and Arnaud (Fabrice Luchini), a business lawyer, are used to their 80-year-old father Lucien’s humanitarianism but they’re fretting over his latest plan. The patriarch (Michel Aumont) is arranging to give board to a migrant who lacks papers – and that’s illegal. But mouths drop open at the family dinner when father introduces the migrant he’s decided to adopt. It turns out not to be the Chinese person they were half-expecting but Tatiana, a beautiful, chain-smoking blonde from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, who has come to France with her young daughter to give the girl a better life. A bigger shock comes when papa reveals he has already married the woman, in what he passes off as a union of convenience.

Soon, though, the odd couple are observed holding hands. And despite the 40 odd years separating their birthdates, it gradually transpires they’re sleeping together. Their father has fallen in love and his offspring are none too happy about it – not only because they fear Tatiana’s true motivations (which she fails to put to rest when confronted) but also because his new-found happiness is triggering changes in their own lives. This is especially true of Babette, who realises she’s been living in a stifling relationship with her boyfriend for too long. There’s also their inheritance to consider.

Le Ny’s acting background serves her well in a film where so much hangs on the characters’ expressions. The emotional modulations of the characters from scene to scene are terrific to witness, giving the film a constant dynamic motion. Luchini, who rose to attention working with the late Eric Rohmer, and Viard, who really should be better known internationally, perform an inspired double act. Aumont is peerlessly serene, while Valérie Benguigui wisely refuses to take her Tatiana down the blind alley of caricature.

Viard and Luchini handle their characters’ shocks and constant flurry of anxieties without recourse to the cartoonish. The initial dinner party scene is a particular joy as the cultural clash wrought by the smoking, heavily-made-up intruder tears open the carefully-sewn atmosphere of their reserved, middle-class household. It’s one thing helping a migrant, but this one dislikes Arabs and blacks, instantly throwing all their pat assumptions into chaos.

Not surprisingly for a French story, it soon becomes obvious that class, rather than national, differences are what most upset the brother and sister. After all, Tatiana seems so vulgar. Arnaud is quick to deny that he’s become bourgeois, hence unconsciously affirming the opposite. (Well-off, small l-liberals never feel comfortable about their class status.)

There’s a lightness, irony and complexity to all this that stops the comedy from becoming a form of political point-scoring. More than anything it’s a comedy of manners revolving around personal weakness and illusion. Instead of being pleased for their widower father – the happiest he’s been since their mother died – the son and daughter are jealous. Not that they admit to it.

Le Ny manages a final shift to a more serious tone as the characters weigh up a moral dilemma to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion.

Details

M
1 hour 35 min

Genres