Adieu Berthe, the new movie from the Podalydes brothers — Bruno is director, Denis stars, both wrote the script — accomplishes several things. First is showing that death can be uproariously funny. That’s not exactly original, but what’s interesting is that the film isn’t really a black comedy. Denis Podalydes, one of France’s best, and best-known, character actors, plays Armand, a pharmacist in a suburb of Paris who has trouble committing to anyone: his wife (though they run a pharmacy together), his lover, his son. He hasn’t seen his grandmother for years (she’s been in a provincial nursing home) when he gets the news of her death, and suddenly realizes his loss. We suspect it’s merely self-pity and guilt, the realization that he’s definitively failed in his duty—he can no longer get away with saying that he’ll go see Mémé “one day”.
But he can’t get away from dealing with the funeral (his father, played by Pierre Arditi, is in the throes of dementia), though he gets his mother-in-law to pay for part of it. The director hilariously portrays two different funeral homes, one creepily upscale (preferred by his mother-in-law) and the other a cheapo outfit (which seems to make most of its money from pets). The depiction of the death business is as mordantly funny as Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death. The ritzy New Age funeral home features holographic images of the different burial packages, while the cut-rate home features flimsy coffins and urns that go with sets of thermos bottles.
The second thing the film accomplishes is to show how a death in the family can often be a turning point for the survivors. In dealing with the funeral Armand has to kick himself out of his carefully maintained inertia. This will lead him to a decisive change with his wife, but not before a series of misadventures with his lover Alix (Valérie Lemercier). He even begins to knock some cracks in the ice between him and his teenaged son. Denis Podperalydes gives a very fine performance as a man who is feckless and petulant, but still good-hearted, who finally manages to transcend his limitations, at least a little.
When Armand must go to the nursing home in the country to collect Berthe’s belongings, Alix accompanies him — it’s a great excuse for an adulterous idyll. Valérie Lemercier, who achieved fame as a stand-up comic and star of movie comedies like Les Visiteurs, isn’t used to greatest effect. She’s a good actress, and has an odd physical presence, attractive but somehow lopsided. But she’s exploited for one of her patented schticks, what might be called the fast burn, where exasperation becomes hysterical. It’s very funny the first time, less so the third or fourth. The rest of the cast (Bruno Podalydes’ usual company) does a first-rate comic ensemble turn.
The Podalydes brothers hail from Versailles, and some of their films deal with that bourgeois bastion (Versailles Rive- Gauche, Bancs Publics). Those films were witty, but stylized and arch. In Adieu Berthe the brothers move to Chatou, an upper-middle-class but more humdrum town, and the nursing home in la France perdue, resulting in a looser style. While the script is heavy on sardonic asides and word-play, and Bruno Podalydes makes very clever use of cell-phones and texting, he films his eccentrics in a warmer way than usual, a bit in the Wes Anderson vein.
When Armand rummages through his grandmother’s belongings he discovers that she’d had a life that he’d never known about or even suspected. It’s an important discovery, related in a way to his hobby as a magician, keeping things hidden and mysterious, and in his case — not Berthe’s—unfulfilled. Armand does manage an impressive trick, of bringing different contradictory narrative strands together, even doing justice to his neglected grandmother. The third accomplishment of the movie is showing how death can mark a deceased person’s coming to life for the first time, at least in the perceptions of others. That’s no mean trick.
Production: Why Not Productions
All photos copyright Anne-Françoise Brillot – Why Not Productions
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