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Prodigal Son Takes Over Mom-and-Pop Grocery

The Grocer's Son (2007)

Film Movement

Suddenly we can’t turn around for French paeans to rural life. In 2008, not only did a comedy called "Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks)" smash box-office records to become the most successful French film ever, but "Modern Life" won the Louis Delluc Prize for being the year’s best French film. And now "The Grocer’s Son," which mines what is apparently a very deep vein. It has enough panache that it doesn’t feel past its sell-by date.

Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé), said son, is a bit of a mess. He moves from one dead-end job to another, has a terrible apartment, no girlfriend, and seems lost in the big city. The trouble of course is that Antoine doesn’t know what he wants, which his friends Hassan (Chad Chenouga, handling the stereotypical role of Arab grocer with good grace) and Claire (the sparky Clotilde Hesme) understand without making a big deal of it.

When his overbearing father (Daniel Duval) is hospitalized with a stroke, his mother (Jeanne Goupil) suggests he come work for them until he is back on his feet. Antoine refuses to consider it, until Claire starts talking about how she needs a break from city life to get her studies on track. So Antoine takes her back with him, where they soon fall into a rough routine. His parents’ small shop is the focus of local life, mostly because of the grocery van which travels a route around the remoter farmhouses.

The whole movie is a hymn to the ideal of rural France, with independent farmers scratching their living on smallholdings, as recently also seen in "Modern Life." The pacing can drag, but Mr. Guirado cleverly keeps our attention by intercutting Antoine’s interactions with his customers with the beautiful countryside, shot by Laurent Brunet to emphasize both its loveliness and its harshness. The van looks very small as it wends its way down the narrow roads under a warm blue sky.

Fortunately, the hymn is balanced with plenty of reality. Antoine’s dad never gets any nicer, and the original family fight that caused their estrangement years ago is never resolved. It’s also never mentioned that Claire, with two minor exceptions, is the only woman shown under the age of 50; there’s also exactly one child in the whole movie. Instead, the area is full of the elderly, like a retirement community on a larger scale. Antoine’s van gives them their independence; and as they carefully count out their euros and complain the paté isn’t full-flavored enough, it’s hard not to admire the stubbornness and determination that keeps all of them together. But Antoine knows more than most that stubbornness and determination are not always enough.

Claire is a mature student, after an early marriage pulled her off the traditional university track; others’ polite exploration of her history and her goals is friendly and probing without being intrusive. Of course, this reticence is also taken to an extreme; Antoine’s brother François (Stéphan Guérin Tillié), who stayed in the small town, has managed to keep a secret that breaks the limits of plausibility. His car stereo soundtrack is thumping club music, while Antoine listens to thoughtful guitar music by Christophe Boutin. Most of Mr. Guirado’s directorial touches are unfortunately much less subtle; Mr. Guirado prefers knocking us on the head just as Antoine accidentally does to one of his best customers, who returns to the van the next day wearing a crash helmet. Everyone in "The Grocer’s Son" is so grown-up. Is this special French skill, like shrugging, taught in schools? Now, grown-up doesn’t mean the same thing as mature, but what every single person in this film does is treat the other adults as adults. Seeing it done so consistently emphasizes how rare it is to see this not only on screen, but also in real life.


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