Festival Films: France’s ‘Copacabana’

Renowned French actress Isabelle Huppert plays Babou in Marc Fitoussi’s latest feature comedy, “Copacabana,” the only French production entered in the International Competition at the Cairo International Film Festival. Babou is in her 50s, an ex-hippie with a punk twist who lives in Tourcoing, in the north of France. Unemployed, she escapes her unexciting everyday life by swallowing numerous pints of beer with her friend Patrick, also unemployed, at a local pub. Looking pretty eccentric with her dirty beige faux-fur coat, her flamboyant red hair pinned in a fluffy bun, and her various brightly colored or leopard print dresses, she does not blend into the quiet city filled with red brick buildings.

Her daughter, the 22-year-old Esmeralda (Lolita Chammah, who is also her daughter in real life), studies modern literature and works part-time as a waitress in a local restaurant. With her well-organized life, boring fiancé and face devoid of make-up, Esmerelda oozes boring normality and traditional values. The viewer rapidly understands that this featureless character is an ideal counterpoint to her mother’s inconsistent and cheerful attitude. Their relationship is marred by an inability to communicate and understand the reality of the other’s desires and decisions. Babou epitomizes the generation of baby-boomers whose taste for wandering and improvising clashes furiously with their children’s desire for stability and certainty.

The day Esmeralda announces to her mother her intention to get married, the silence that follows on Babou’s part triggers a rush of exasperation from her daughter: “I know you think that getting married is so philistine!” Esmeralda does not want her mother to attend her wedding, afraid that she may shame her in front of her respectable in-laws.

Pride injured, Babou decides to regain the esteem of her daughter by finding a job. She starts selling timeshare apartments in a waterfront residence in the Belgian city of Ostend. The deserted seaside resort town is battered by fierce winter winds, conveying the firm belief that nothing has or will ever happen there, with its timid sun, dull beach and furious sea.

Extremely selfish, with sudden and unexpected rushes of unfathomable generosity, Babou cares little for social conventions and does not hesitate to accommodate a young penniless couple into one of the studios she is supposed to sell. She is irresistibly drawn to the marginalized souls; these pathetic characters left behind that somehow are responsible for their misfortune.

With an innate sense of framing and a great photographic style, Marc Fitoussi paints an interesting portrait of a mother who is inadequate in her time and environment. Lacking discernment with the characters around her, especially with her daughter who suffers the most from her originality, Babou ultimately succeeds in finding a form of redemption through realizing the flaws of her conduct.

The attraction to Brazil—hence the title “Copacabana”—and the vital need for freedom, follows the central character like her shadow, never imposing itself too violently but never out of the picture either. The northern mists are often lifted by the sweet and warm melodies of Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, which surprisingly merge very well with the dull environment.

“Copacabana” is not a masterpiece, but it is an often charming film, and one that mostly achieves the modest goals it sets out for itself.

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