When we interviewed director Eric Lartigau in Paris over a year ago, The Belier Family had yet to be released in France, and the friendly filmmaker admitted he was nervous about how it would fare. “Yes, there are definitely nerves,” he tells FilmInk via a translator. “We’ve screened the film to a number of audiences and the reaction has been very warm. There’s a curiosity to see this family. But you never know.” He needn’t have worried as The Belier Family turned out to be France’s biggest box office hit of last year.
A warm but wonderfully wry crowd-pleaser, the film follows the journey of Paula (newcomer Louane Emera), a responsible teen who acts as a translator for her parents (played by popular French actors Francois Damiens and Karin Viard) and brother, all of whom are deaf. But her home life helping her family on their dairy farm grows complicated when she discovers that she has a talent and passion for singing. Her parents – who “can’t stand people who can hear” – fear abandonment, and Paula feels torn between two worlds.
How did you discover this story and what resonated with you about it?
I was writing a script that was about family and I met my producers [Philippe Rousselet and Eric Jehelmann] and they gave me a script and said, ‘Since you’re writing a script about family, we have a story about family called The Belier Family’. The story was interesting to me because the screenwriter had been inspired by the life of her father’s assistant, who was the only hearing person in a family of deaf people. She was also taking singing lessons so she mixed the stories. I took the script, which was essentially based on this teenage girl, and I developed the family aspect.
I was interested in this age in life that is very fragile. It’s full of contradictions. Often teenagers are paranoid, and they feel that they’re never listened to by their parents and they have a wall in front of them. I was also interested in this discovery of a gift that you have inside and you’re not conscious of, but that’s suddenly revealed. It’s unsettling because with her family situation, it must be very complicated in her head – What does it mean? What does it represent? It’s scary and it’s a new feeling in your body. Working with your voice is one of the most beautiful feelings, but paradoxically, it’s also the only art that her parents cannot have access to. So I was interested by these moments that we all find as teenagers of betrayal and fear and learning how to listen to yourself and take charge of how you want to live.
I love the fact that the family was so candid and open, especially when it came to sex. Why did you choose to make them so open in that way?
In fact, that’s something that you find among the deaf community, these are people who don’t have limits. They’re very free and straightforward. They don’t hesitate to show their feelings and emotions. That’s what I like about them, they don’t have the same filters that we have. We always go around topics when we talk about them whereas they’re direct. When it comes to sexuality, they are very sensitive to that.
Did that surprise you?
Yes, because I had just met the world of deaf people through my cousin, who was deaf, but we hung out when were very young, and we didn’t talk about sex at the time. We played a lot together and I saw the difficulties she had to deal with her brothers, adults and with people on the street. It was difficult whereas the two of us could really play and we were able to communicate and we understood each other very well. I never even asked myself the question of difference. I saw the difference through other people’s eyes, and not through my own.
You found your lead actress Louane Emera on The Voice?
Yes, I was looking for an actress who could sing, but ended up discovering a singer who could act. We’d seen around 80 young girls and I found a really great young actress, but she had the worst voice unfortunately. I originally thought I was going to put a voice over her, but I didn’t want this to be a musical comedy. I wanted this to be reality. A friend told me to watch The Voice, and I saw Louane and there was a pureness in her.
Francois Damiens and Karin Viard who play the parents are terrific and very convincing, but was there ever the consideration that you might cast deaf actors in these roles?
I thought about these two actors from the beginning. As soon as I started working on the script, I immediately saw the actors. I never thought about deaf actors because I didn’t want to make a documentary film. For me, an actor’s job is to go into the characters’ skin, even if it’s a person with a disability. Maybe a few deaf people have said it’s a shame not to have cast deaf people, but 98% of the deaf community have said, ‘Thanks for showing that we’re just like you. There’s a tendency to put us in boxes and throw us on the side, whereas you show we have the same worries’.
How did the actors find learning sign language?
Sign language is a very complicated language, it’s a living language. It changes and evolves. There’s three ways to sign depending on the sentence or the intention you have so you have to choose all the signs according to the dialogue on the script. I worked for five days with the deaf person who was teaching the actors, and with the translator. They were incredible encounters. We decided on the dialogue, and sometimes I would ask the teacher whether he’d have another sign for a certain word and he’d offer suggestions. So we wrote the signs that we needed, and then I filmed all the dialogue sentence by sentence for each of the actors, and we made a DVD for each of the actors. It was an intensive preparation process.
I imagine this didn’t leave a lot of room for improv on set…
We did have the teacher on set in case, but the actors usually had their heads so full, it was usually like, let’s forget it!
The Belier Family is in cinemas December 26.