A nurse, Josette (Catherine Heigel), is in love with Doctor Mavial (Daniel Gélin), whom she works for. He continues to promise that he’ll leave his wife when the time is right, but he’s been saying that for decades. Twelve years prior, after he’d promised to spend Christmas Eve with her but then went back to his wife after delivering two babies, Josette played a prank on him. She switched the name tags of those babies with each other so that they went home with the wrong parents. When the doctor’s wife dies, he is still unwilling to marry Josette. Angry, she writes a few letters explaining the baby swap to all interested parties.
Billed as an outrageously wicked comedy, Life Is a Long Quiet River, the debut film from director Étienne Chatiliez, was a smash hit upon its release in France 1988 and it took home four César awards including Best First Feature Film and Best Writing. Arrow Academy has given it a nice new HD transfer allowing us Americans to give it a chance. While I did utter a chuckle or two, I’d call this more of a light social satire than anything close to a comedy. It is amusing in its way, but a little too long (and it only runs for 91 minutes) and its satire a bit toothless.
The baby swap involves two families on opposite sides of the social stratus. Little Maurice went home with the Groseilles who are poor, crass, and crafty. They live in public housing, learn how to pick pockets at a young age, and are stealing their electricity. In an early, very funny scene, we see the family make a mad dash to rid their house of any evidence of wrong-doing including detaching several jumper cables used to steal that electricity when they think a man from the electric company is coming to their door.
The girl, Bernadette (Valérie Lalande), is taken home by the Le Quesnoys, who seemingly have the perfect life. They have a big, fancy house, a cook/maid, the children are well behaved, and they are on a first-name basis with the local priest. Everything is exactly perfect, at least until they get that letter.
When they learn that Bernadette is, in fact, not their child and that they actually have a son living with an impoverished family, they do what anybody would do in that situation – they offer to buy the boy from Groseilles. Well, it isn’t exactly that crude of a transaction but they do give them a large sum of money and take the boy in, but with the understanding that he can visit the Groseilles anytime he pleases. Never ones to turn down some money, the Groseilles agree. The Le Quesnoys also keep Bernadette and opt to never tell her about the mix-up, pretending that they have simply adopted Maurice.
Things go about as well as you’d expect. Maurice takes to his new life well at first. He cuts his hair, learns some manners, and enjoys playing with the other children. But he also misses his old family. He was good at running scams and he starts stealing a little here and a little there from the Le Quesnoys. Bernadette catches him playing with some of his old chums and chastizes him for playing with poor people, whom she despises. This lets the cat out of the bag and Bernadette spends the rest of the film refusing to come out of her room, not knowing who she is anymore. The film gives her short shrift throughout, paying much more attention to Maurice.
Not that it does much with him either. Not that it does much with anybody at all. Social satire is a difficult thing to judge some 20-plus years in the future from a culture that isn’t your own, but Life Is a Long Quiet River feels very tame to these eyes. It pokes fun at the bourgeois Catholic family and indicates the Groseilles have more fun, but it is never mean, the satire never biting. My research indicates that the film has had a long life on television, playing over the French airwaves repeatedly for many years, keeping its popularity high. I can see how that would be true. It is light-hearted, pokes fun at both classes yet remains inoffensive. Like A Christmas Story, it is something you could throw on when the family is around and everyone could enjoy it more or less.
I wish there was more too it. I wish the satire was bolder or darker. I wish it was actually funny. When I complained to my francophile wife that this comedy didn’t produce any laughs, she asked me if I knew what the French considered to be a comedy. When I answered in the negative, she said, “when nobody dies.” Well, nobody dies in Life Is a Long Quiet River, and it is mildly amusing, but don’t come expecting big belly laughs or even more than a few chuckles. But for a mildly satirical look at French life in the early 1980s, this is the film to watch.
Extras on this Arrow Academy presentation include archival interviews with the director, actor André Wilms (father Le Quesnoy), co-writer/co-producer Florence Quentin, and producer Charles Gassot. Also included is a full-color booklet with an essay on the film.