The Duval clan may be just five in number but their story is a family-bound saga that spans three decades. Each member gets a chapter in this tightly crafted oeuvre and they all evolve and grow over the years as writer-director Remi Bezancon tells each of their stories in “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life.”
This is true family epic that begins in 1988 with eldest son, Albert (Pio Marmai), forced to have his beloved dog, Ulysse, put to sleep. He is of an age where he wants/needs to leave the nest, much to his mother, Marie-Jeanne’s (Zabou Breitman) sorrow. “I’ve lost my child!” she wails to her husband, Robert (Jacques Gamblin) and her other two children, Raphael (Marc-Andre Grondin) and young Fleur (Nina Rodriguez). When they ask her, “What about us?” she replies that it is not the same, the first-born child is different. This sets the tone as “The First Day…” features each of the Duval family in the subsequent chapters.
1993 focuses on Fleur (Deborah Francois), now 16 and ready for her first sexual encounter. Her story weaves with the other family developments, including grandpa’s (Roger Dumas) disdain for his only child, Robert. Pierre had loaned his son the money to buy their home many years ago and he has never let him forget the debt. The family dynamics begin to flesh out nicely, involving you with these believable characters. The last three chapters spotlight middle child, Raphael, Marie-Jeanne and, finally, lifelong smoker Robert, ending in 2000.
Although each Duval family story is separated by a span of years from the others, there is a natural flow that allows the five chapters to meld seamlessly from one to the next. The combination of deft writing and directing and a first-rate ensemble cast brings the viewer into the lives of the Duval family and it is well worth the time. “The First Day…” has a universal feel that could put the story anywhere. I give it a B+.
The Duval family, like most, is made up of both stronger and weaker bonds. Over the decades, each of its five members gets his own focus in writer/director Rémi Bezançon's ("Love Is in the Air") "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life."
Beginning in 1988 with a chapter ironically titled 'It's a dog's life,' we begin our twelve year journey with the Duval family. Eldest son Raphaël (Marc-André Grondin, "C.R.A.Z.Y.," "Che: Part Two") starts things off as he transitions to life in college. Youngest daughter Fleur (Déborah François, "L'Enfant," "The Page Turner") follows with the adolescent pain and joy of first loves. In 'Magic Fingers, Albert (Pio Marmaï) is shown to be the second victim of a 'skipped' generation, discounted by his own father (Jacques Gamblin, "Safe Conduct," "L'enfer") as his father is discounted by his (Roger Dumas, "Comedy of Power"). What one generation cannot see if the one immediately following is connected when grandfather decides to teach grandson about his beloved wines. Mom Marie-Jeanne (Zabou Breitman, "Almost Peaceful") is given a lovely passage connecting with her daughter through Fleur's diary while dad Robert closes with 'Tomorrow I Quit."
Bezançon has done a beautiful job moving back and forth through time and bringing background stories to the foreground before letting them slip away for another's point of view. The film is rich with hurt, love and humor, just like real family life. There is a lovely sequence where, away from home, Raphaël encounters an old Steve McQueen movie and we're transported through the film to a flashback of the three much younger siblings watching same. And yet, the film is uneven, particularly in the introductory sequence 'starring' Raphaël, the son we never truly get a grip on. The final chapter makes a surprising statement on a subject rarely broached in French films, at least the ones that make their way to U.S. shores, and it does so with far more subtlety and effect than a Hollywood production ever would. Gamblin and hippie/earth mother Breitman make the biggest impact.
"The First Days of the Rest of Your Life" was nominated for Best Film and won Best Editing and Most Promising Actor and Actress at the 2009 César awards. It is the opening night film of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' 14th annual film festival.
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