As a modest writer with enough success to get a paycheck but little recognition otherwise, I often find myself confronted with amateur scribes lecturing me, despite never having read my work or published any of their own, on why I’ve failed at my career. One bit of advice that keeps coming back is the idea that plot doesn’t matter. The art, they say, lies in the themes and characters dictating my next sentence or chapter as if I were channelling a higher stream of consciousness through my keyboard. While I’m sure this makes for a spiritual writing experience, I can’t help but wonder what readers are to take away from a protagonist just flaunting his or her symbolic worth for three hundred pages.
Take, for instance, The Family, written and directed by Luc Besson, the creative mind behind The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990), The Fifth Element (1997), and over a hundred French thrillers that follow the same structure almost beat for beat. Here is a man who’s figured out the recipe for commercial success yet still takes the time to stretch himself once in a while, such as in this movie. Sure, we get all the outlandish shootouts and explosions we’ve come to expect from a EuropaCorp production, but the violence here is played for laughs, punctuating an elaborate satire of both French and American culture.
At first glance, the premise of The Family seems to cater to Besson’s strengths: an American mob family moves to Normandy, France, as part of the witness protection program, but its members refuse to adapt to their surrounding, beating people half to death and blowing up commercial establishments at every perceived slight. The joke lies in the Blakes’ frustrations stemming from recognisable cultural differences so that, when Fred (Robert De Niro) lashes out at a plumber (Tonio Descanvelle) for being forty-five minutes late, we can either laugh at the French for their infamously loose interpretation of time or at the Americans for always acting like they’re in a hurry.
As a French filmmaker who’s made it big in the U.S., Besson understands what makes each country tick and, more importantly, how much teasing each audience is willing to take. Given that the people of France don’t mind being called condescending or administratively impaired as long as the criticism addresses a nondescript mass (and comes from one of their own), he strips the Normandy community of any individual character trait. By the same token, he depicts the Blakes as such broad caricatures of pride and blissful ignorance, American audiences may never notice that The Family is also poking fun at them.
It’s a clever act that’s diminished only by the Hollywood conceit of having everyone speak English to our protagonists. Also, as someone who’s spent considerable time in France and the U.S., I couldn’t help feeling bad for the two nations, not least because The Family hits a bull’s eye with many of its pot shots. Take, for example, the scene in which horny high school boys drag the Blakes’ eldest (Dianna Agron) out of town without her consent, exposing the French’s dubious stance on gender equality. Compare it to the later bit when Belle threatens suicide after seducing an older student, this time alluding to the American tradition of confusing lust with love.
Yes, The Family can feel mean-spirited at times, but the cast balances out a lot of the venom with warm, energetic performances that never overplay the joke. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer prove equal to themselves as Mr and Mrs Blake, portraying pathological troublemakers in the most endearing manner imaginable, but it’s the children who caught my attention, the way John D’Leo and Dianna Agron layer every instance of bravado with a hint of vulnerability. What’s more, they’re given genuine characters. I love their untypically affectionate bond, for instance, the implication that all this moving around has taught the siblings to rely on each other and no one else.
Unfortunately, Besson never gets around to building a plot around these characters, content to just introduce the premise, string together a couple of gags, and abruptly cut to a gun fight with nothing learnt or gained. Even minimalist slice-of-life stories like Before Sunrise (1995) provide their protagonists with a trajectory, a transformative arc that gives significance to the hour and a half you spend with them. In contrast, The Family makes a lot of noise but comes off frustratingly stagnant. It’s a waste of wit and insight really, sort of like career advice from novelists who’ve never committed a word to the page.