The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (Le premier jour du reste de ta vie) is an award-winning, French family comedy-drama with a twist. Attempting to defy formula, writer-director Rémi Bezançon has structured the film in a chapter-like fashion, with each segment corresponding to five different days over a twelve year period, charting the lives of the 5-strong Duval family. Running with the title concept, each chapter relates to a different integral moment in the characters lives - be it eldest son Albert's (Pio Marmaï) moving away from home, or daughter Fleur's (Déborah François) sixteenth birthday - while navigating the poles of melodrama and nostalgia that seem endemic to the genre.
While the film has a pleasant, easy charm, the whole project gives off a sense of the contrived. Moments of levity and comedy can often be sickly sweet, moments of trauma are sudden and heavy-handed, and emotions are always foregrounded, seemingly without regard for the logic of character interiority. This makes the characters feel a little schizophrenic, and their world feels squeaky clean, even a little claustrophobic - with the polished, wistful cuddliness of a Richard Curtis film. Although, the broad canvas gives Bezançon the opportunity to bring up plenty of key family moments, that are picked and presented for maximum sentimentalism - with the death of a family dog being the starting point for a collective lifetime of loves, deaths and relationships.
What's more, the dozen year long narrative, rather than creating an insightful narrative of epic or bildungsroman proportions, is surprisingly shallow. Each segment mostly focuses on one of the central family members, meaning that the perspective shifts often drastically, meaning that there is little time for much to stick. Likewise, the jumps in chronology mean that characters appear disjointed, as opposed to flowing and developing, and relationships, rivalries and issues are given little time to ferment or breathe. One scene ends with an argument, with punches thrown, only for the next to occur with all wounds (emotional and physical) mended. This is fine, and supports Bezançon's thematics about different approaches to life, and the tensions at the heart of any family, but another scene ends with a bitter argument, and a similar time jump reveals that this one had major ramifications. It is jarring and full of holes, and reveals a script (if not a writer) that feels more willing to explore big confrontations than subtle moments.
The cast are not well served by this approach, often having to spend most of their screen-time establishing drastic character turns. Nevertheless, they are an amiable bunch, led by Jacques Gamblin and Zabou Brietman as parents Robert and Marie-Jeanne respectively. It is worth noting that, while the film sports 3 Cesar awards, two of which were given to Marc-André Grondin and Déborah François, for Most Promising Actor and Actress. They certainly stand out in the film, with Grondin doing his best as he suffers through a (tortuously embarrassing) scene at an air-guitar competition, and the utterly beautiful François managing to make Fleur into a conflicted, damaged character. Nevertheless, there is no skirting around the fact that both have performed better in other films - with François turning heads in the Belgian urban drama L'enfant, and Grondin starring in French-Canadian flick C.R.A.Z.Y., both in 2005.
The other Cesar was for editing, no doubt for the sumptuous (if too frequent) montage sequences that are brought to life by editor Sophie Reine and director of photography Antoine Monod. Characters often criss-cross in time, overlapping in memory and reminiscence. That these scenes hold more mystery, poetry, or romance than the majority of the main sway of the narrative is telling. Just as curious is the film's cultural footprint, which is anglophonic (mostly American) with next to no exception. Not only are scenes soundtracked by the likes of David Bowie's 'Time', Janis Joplin's cover of 'Summertime', or Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day', but there are protracted, detailed references to The Magnificent Seven and Apocalypse Now (with verbatim quotes from dubs, which, for those who are just as interested in language as film, is an enthralling treat).
Kurt Cobain, and Grunge in particular, also feature, as well as a long conversation about the best guitar solo of all time. While the film roots these references well, and it is a joy to hear the actors wrap their accents around French-unfriendly phonemic structures like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the proliferation of American cultural markers is hard to ignore. 1994 is defined by Cobain's suicide, 1998 by Tomb Raider and Monica Lewinsky. It makes one wonder how conscious this was - is Bezançon highlighting an important influence of anglophonic culture on France? Or is this a calculated decision, to root the film in references more familiar to English-speaking audiences, or international audiences in general? Or, worse, is this an example of total, unaware cultural domination? For nitpicky, cultural theory discussions, Bezançon and company have created a goldmine.
These are quibbles both major and minor, but those looking for an entertaining, charming, and unconventional drama that pulls on the heartstrings will still find much to enjoy in The First Day of the Rest of Your Life.