Director Cédric Kahn is best known in the UK for two notable arthouse hits of the 2000's, back when French cinema used to pull the crowds: Roberto Succo (2001) and Red Lights (2004). None of his following films made it over here but he has maintained a steady career in France over the years. At first, his latest, Happy Birthday, seems to be the epitome of that very French sub genre: the bourgeois family reunion in a the countryside, complete with the glossy, ensemble cast and the very early signs that it is all about to kick off in recriminations, secrets and lies, as a sprawling clan reunites to celebrate the birthday of matriarch Andréa (Catherine Deneuve).
Except that while it does all kick off as expected, it does it in unexpected ways, and the story goes off the rails with bite and wit. The family is not nearly as well off as it first appears, the "crazy" daughter who has just returned from years in California with nothing to show for is not quite as deluded as it first seems, the parents not quite as wholesome and honest...
The big shouty arguments explode, the dirty laundry is aired and secrets revealed yet everything is just cranked up that little higher than a more sedate kind of French cinema has us accustomed to. At times it feels as if Cédric Kahn deconstructs this sub genre and offers us a metaphor for French cinema as a whole, which is, after all, often referred to as "the great family of French cinema" (and often ironically too). It is very telling that the director also stars in the film as the seemingly only sane member of that family, observing his siblings and parents in a perennially bemused and appalled state. Indeed there is a scene in which Vincent Macaigne literally asks his entire family to "replay" a scene that has just happened so that he can film it for his art project.
Cédric Kahn also has a lot of fun using the persona of many of his stellar cast members: Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch/queen of French cinema trying to keep up appearances despite her family crumbling in front of her eyes, Vincent Macaigne who always seems to play the same character here being made to play it again but to the max... As for Emmanuelle Bercot, whose has never been afraid to go all out in her acting career, here delivers a fantastically unhinged performance that echoes of the kind of parts Isabelle Adjani used to play in the 80's, and then surprises us with a surprisingly moving narrative arc. This is the best she has ever been and she shows us what a fabulous actress she can be with the right script and direction.
Unexpectedly and fabulously ferocious, Happy Birthday is an acerbic and very amusing slice of French cinema at its best.
Review by Laurent de Alberti
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Happy Birthday. France 2019. Directed by and starring Cédric Kahn. Also starring Catherine Deneuve, Vincent Macaigne, Emmanuelle Bercot...