Life’s a beach

Isabelle Huppert lights up the screen in the French film ‘Copacabana.’

Isabelle Huppert_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Isabelle Huppert_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Isabelle Huppert, one of the reigning divas of French cinema, has played nearly every tragic situation known to humanity throughout her nearly 40-year career. From her breakthrough performance as a teen murderer in Claude Chabrol’s Violette in 1978 to her turn as a woman in a sadomasochistic relationship with a younger man in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher in 2002, she rarely seems to poke fun at herself or play a role with a lighter side.
To see her as a comic figure is one of the pleasures of her latest film, Copacabana, which is being shown at the French Film Festival and has been released throughout Israel. She plays Babou, a hippie whose era has passed but who hasn’t changed with the times. Her hair flaming red, constantly reapplying her scarlet lipstick, Babou is furious to learn that her 20-something daughter, Esmeralda (Lolita Chammah, who is Huppert’s reallife daughter), doesn’t want her mother to attend her upcoming wedding. Esmeralda is devoted to establishing her life as a member of the petit-bourgeoisie, and although we’ve seen this situation before – the younger generation rebels against freespirited parents by becoming more conservative – it’s handled very convincingly here.
While Babou thrives on the chaos that her life has always been, Esmeralda craves the routine and order she grew up without. She loves and needs her straight-arrow fiancé and wants to marry him in a simple, formal wedding, an event she fears her flamboyant mother will somehow ruin. Determined to show her daughter that she can hold down a job and be an ordinary mother-of-the-bride, Babou heads off to a beachfront resort in Belgium, where she will sell time-shares.
Marc Fitoussi, a young director, manages to overcome the pitfalls of this familiar set-up. The movie veers off in some unexpected directions once Babou reaches the resort. Babou’s idea of corporate attire is the movie’s most successful running joke: She wears a ratty fake fur, colorful print dresses and stiletto heels. While she had thought it was a training program that would lead to a job with a salary, Babou learns that the pay is strictly by commission: no sales, no money. Her more conventional fellow trainees are outraged; but Babou, who has no faith in the corporate world whatsoever, takes it in her stride.
It turns out that her genuine friendliness and lack of pretense make her an excellent salesperson. But she finds herself coming into conflict with the corporate trainers, small cogs in a big machine that runs the time-share company, particularly the chic but vapid Lydie (Aure Atika, who had a memorable role in Avi Nesher’s Turn Left at the End of the World). And she still has to prove herself to her daughter, who isn’t happy with the fact that her mother has befriended two homeless people. She also meets a man who offers her a stable relationship, one she can’t decide whether she wants. The more a settled life seems to open up before her, the more she dreams of escaping to Brazil, which is where the film gets its title.
Although there are a lot of laughs here, the film does have a serious subtext, about the dwindling economic opportunities and how vulnerable people willing to work hard are taken advantage of. It brought to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bait and Switch, about how often the only job options open these days are for-commission sales opportunities like the work Babou finds.
The relationship between the mother and daughter, fraught with conflict, resentment, affection and camaraderie, has a particularly nice feel. While they sometimes erupt in anger, these two women are not the polar opposites they seem at first. While each remains true to her nature, it’s enjoyable to watch the give and take between them.
There is also something sublime about seeing Huppert, a beautiful woman in her 50s, who is allowed to look her age on screen. So many American actresses have become grotesque versions of their younger selves, due to plastic surgery. They may look younger than they actually are, but they no longer seem real, and they cannot command the screen as Huppert can.
An unrealistically positive plot turn late in the film distorts the film’s realistic tone. But Copacabana is still a pleasant film with believable characters and wonderful acting.