I wasn’t expecting much out of Copacabana. The trailer was full of manically fast cuts and there was a whiff of try-hard-outrageous about the middle-aged central character. I’ve had enough experience of ‘quirky’ French comedy to expect more misses than hits. The odds weren’t looking good.
Forget about the trailer. And forget about the comedy label. This ain’t fast-moving, it’s not try-hard outrageous or try-hard anything else, and while there are plenty of light-hearted moments, it’s not hilarious. So what is it?
A sheer delight, mon ami! Like a good French baguette – stylish in presentation, light and airy yet substantial and rewarding in its subtle complexities, and worth taking time out to savour.
Babou (Isabelle Huppert) is an eccentric middle-aged single mother living in the north of France with her very straitlaced daughter, Esmerelda (Huppert’s real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah). The traditional mother-daughter roles are reversed; while Esmerelda holds down a job, takes on the responsibilities of the household, and is in a steady relationship, Babou is arrested in her development, has no stable relationship, no money and no job, and dreams of travelling to Brazil. She steadfastly flies the bohemian flag of her youth, and for the most part gets away with it. However, she is forced into taking a critical look at herself when Esmerelda announces her engagement and informs her mother that she is embarrassed by her and will not be inviting her to the wedding. Babou determines to prove herself to her daughter by taking a dodgy job selling time-share apartments in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend.
Babou lights up the bleak off-season drabness of Ostend with her colourful garb and radiant personality. She begins a casual affair with a younger man she meets on her first night, befriends a couple of impoverished, dope-smoking backpackers, and is surprisingly successful in her job. However, her subversive nature, disarming openness and honesty, and generosity of spirit combine to jeopardise her standing as star sales recruit. These qualities and her personal integrity are liabilities in the established order and hypocrisy of the workplace, where rules is rules, and anyone who plays the game must stick by them, pretend to stick by them and support that pretence with lies, or bust.
Isabelle Huppert invests Babou with a charm and incandescence that is irresistible. Yes, she’s irresponsible, commitment-averse, and a bit of a messup, but her age-defying energy and her indefatigable zest for life are compelling and enviable attributes. Her refusal to succumb to the dulling routines and petty hypocrisies that are part of the deal for the compliant majority who opt for the comfort and security of the middle-class drone zone is brave, if perhaps unsettling for those of us who once raged against the machine before grudgingly bowing to the pressures to become part of it.
This gentle but slyly subversive little film is one for the free spirits of the world. Maybe we can’t all be like Babou – indeed, society would fall apart if we were – but as Esmeralda slowly realises, there is dignity and honour in being true to yourself as she is. Finding the courage to live your life as you wish rather than as society demands is not easy, but characters like Babou are a moving (and entertaining!) reminder that the choice is always there. And that the few people who make that choice uncompromisingly are to be treasured, not sternly judged.
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