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23 July 2008

Movie Review: Romance of the French Countryside - Le Fils de l'épicier

This gentle romance, Le Fils de l'Épicier (The Grocer's Son), came out in my town on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, so I'm afraid that it might be easily overlooked. It doesn't have the backstage drama of an ill-fated, young star becoming immortal by dying young nor does it have an international incident involving any of its stars.

There is nothing deep or brooding about it and no special effects or CGI were used. If this was re-made in a few years, it would have too much gloss and glamor to seem like a story about real people.

This 2007 movie, directed by Eric Guirado and written by Guirado and Florence Vignon, was released in the U.S. in June of this year. The lead actor, Nicolas Cazalé, was nominated for a César for his role as a prodigal son, returning from a self-imposed exile in the city to find his place in the world as the grocer's son.

Cazalé plays Antoine, a shy, 30-year-old man who has been drifting through life in the big city, going from job to job, unhappy and a bit surly. His latest job is as a waiter and he feels the impersonal nature of urban life. He is smitten with his neighbor, Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who is divorced, a bit impoverished and studying to enter college--something she gave up when she married so young.

Antoine's father (Daniel Duval) collapses and his mother (Jeanne Goupil) is left alone to tend their mom-and-pop store that includes a van. Antoine borrows money for Claire and agrees to work until his father gets well. Antoine's older brother, François (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), has remained in the village and is married, the only technically married--something he hides from his parents. It is up to Antoine to drive the route and sell merchandise, but his prickly personality turns his father's customers away. Claire comes along one day and charms his customers, most of them elderly and some increasingly suffering from the debilitating ravages of old age. From this we see that part of Antoine's gruffness is due to his introversion. With Claire, we see his inner sweetness slowly peek out.

His father, also a grouch by nature, had a softness under his rough exterior. Yet when his father comes home from the hospital, old grievances--between Antoine and his father, between his father and François and François and Antoine--flare up.

While Antoine and Claire make tentative steps toward a relationship, the real romance here is with the French countryside of Provence--and yet the economic woes of a small business against larger businesses and the problems of old age, are not glossed over. Loose strings are left untied. If you're looking for closure or some climatic realization, Guirado and Vignon have not provided it.

Instead, we have what seem to be real people, living real lives and speaking or not speaking. The dialog isn't witty or snappy or clever. Yet as the relationship between the principals evolve, gradually, we do see hope and a kind of happiness, the kind that can really come to real lives in a way that seems more real than reality TV.

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