We had a spirited discussion while taping Movies 101, the show that Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and I do for Spokane Public Radio. It involved Luc Besson's new film “The Family,” which I kind of enjoyed, MP was neutral on and Nathan … well, let's just say he wasn't a fan.
So when he told me he was going to write a separate review of “The Family,” I decided to do the same. Mine was broadcast this morning; his will follow on Saturday afternoon. Both will be available in a few days in podcast form.
Here's what I had to say:
Whenever Luc Besson directs a film, Jean-Luc Godard must wince. This is pure conjecture, of course. My one and only personal observation of Godard came in 1972 when he visited the University of California, San Diego, and spoke at a screening of his film “Letter to Jane.” And for all his genius – our teacher, the critic Manny Farber, described Godard as “the Matisse of modern film” – the man, in person, seemed distinctly underwhelming.
No one can argue that he wasn’t among the cinema giants of the last century, though. And his influence, as one of the original members of the French New Wave, has been profound. Which is why I imagine he doesn’t approve of Luc Besson. Godard is as anti-American as he is anti-mainstream cinema. And Besson – director of such films as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element” – is both blatantly American in his filmmaking sensibilities and as mainstream as Godard is devoted to a stubbornly independent, individual aesthetic.
Take Besson’s latest movie, “The Family.” Based on a novel by French-born screenwriter Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is a genre-busting study that depends on film references well known to American audiences. From “Scarface” to “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos,” mobsters have graced American screens both big and small. And because of them, not to mention the real-life figures whom they portray, we know what it means to “make your bones,” why you never go against your family and what happens to those who break the code of omerta.
Besson’s film involves the Manzoni family: Father Giovanni, mother Maggie, daughter Belle and son Warren. Now known as The Blakes, the ultra-New Yorker Manzonis are living in Europe, having become part of the Witness Protection program. Seems Dad Giovanni HAS broken the code of silence by testifying against his former mob cronies. And a posse of hitmen, hired by those same ex-cronies, are on his trail, which keeps the family and their federal handlers on the move.
But life does go on. And even as they find themselves in a small Normandy village, the Manzonis … er, Blakes, continue life as usual. Maggie shops – and responds to insults by blowing up the occasional grocery. Belle walks serenely, pausing only to punish boys who overstep the bounds of propriety. And Warren wastes no time setting up his own schoolyard crime syndicate. Only Giovanni explores something new: using a found typewriter to record HIS version of the facts.
Clearly, the family is as adept at fooling their French neighbors as they are at shining on their federal protectors. But can they handle the gang of hitmen? It’s in answering this final question that director Besson betrays fully his American thematic sympathies, choosing to end everything in an orgy of gunfire and graphic bloodletting.
Which is not to say that parts of “The Family” aren’t enjoyable. Besson had the good sense to cast actors such as Robert De Niro as Giovanni and Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie, both of whom have experience in mob-themed films (in fact, one of De Niro’s movies “Goodfellas” is implicated in one of Besson’s inside jokes). Dianna Agron (of the TV show “Glee”) as Belle and John D’Leo as Warren are nearly their equals.
But, then, that sound you just heard? That might have been Jean-Luc Godard retching.