Director: Rémi Bezançon
Screenplay: Rémi Bezançon
Producers: Eric Altmeyer, Nicolas Altmeyer
Starring: Jacques Gamblin, Zabou Breitman, Deborah Francois
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 114 min
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life was one of those films I stumbled on completely by accident and immediately found myself captivated by its simple charm, which was only accentuated by the sense that I was experiencing a hidden treasure. I discovered The First Day of the Rest of Your Life one afternoon when I had several hours to kill in Nottingham. Living in Lincoln, I have little choice when it comes to films showing at the local cinema (foreign films are a particularly rare commodity at Lincoln Odeon) so when in Nottingham I always take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Broadway Media Centre, a wonderful independent cinema which also boasts a bar in which to contemplate the film you’ve just seen over a glass of red wine. As there was nothing showing that day that I particularly wanted to see, I impulsively chose The First Day of the Rest of Your Life based on the shortest of synopses: A portrait of a family, showing five significant days during a twelve year period.
With only this vague information to go on, I entered the cinema not knowing whether to expect a comedy, a drama, a tragedy… what I got was a combination of the three. It is fair to say, however, that The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is primarily a comedy, filled with the sort of quirky stylistic touches one commonly associates with independent American cinema. While this independent spirit was instantly attractive to me, I also noticed that The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is hardly original material and, in fact, retreads ground so frequently explored in family dramas that it is as closely related to mainstream American cinema and British Soap Operas as it is to American Indies. We have a neglectful parent realising that he is becoming his own father, a rebellious teenage daughter discovering that her mother read her journal, a blazing argument on a wedding day leading to a prolonged family rift, a middle-aged mother wondering if her husband still finds her attractive, raised voices leading to slapped faces leading to people storming out of rooms. These are all cliches frequently encountered on the big and small screen.
Thankfully, director and writer Remi Bezancon handles all this predictable fare with such wit, charm and sensitivity that The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is never anything less than mesmerizing. This is only Bezancon’s second film. His first, the romantic comedy Ma vie en l’air (Love is in the Air), had moments of promise but, despite its superficially unusual plotline, ultimately fell victim to Richard Curtis-esque cliches which Bezancon had here not managed to compensate for. The First Day of the Rest of Your Life represents a leap forward in terms of writing but Bezancon can also thank a wonderful cast for bringing his material to life with such skill. The best turn comes from 21 year old Deborah Francois as daughter Fleur, the emotionally temperamental Grunge fan whose main storyline focuses on her decision to lose her virginity on her sixteenth birthday. The key role of Robert Duval, the father who happens to share his name with an American movie star, is also beautifully played by Jacques Gamblin, who creates a mild-mannered, lovable but rather blinkered patriarch. The rest of the family are also skillfully portrayed by Zabou Breitman (the mid-life crisis suffering mother), Marc-Andre Grondin (the lazy, unemployable son) and newcomer Pio Marmai (the serious-minded, overlooked eldest son).
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is divided into 5 parts, each with its own title and set on one specific and vital day between the years 1988 and 2000. Each segment takes a different member of the family as its main focus, although plotlines continue to interweave and develop alongside the main focus, ensuring that the film never becomes too episodic, like a compilation of short films strung together as a feature. By spending a short period of time with each family member we get to really understand the relationships that are so crucial to The First Day of the Rest of Your Life and warm to each character in a different way. While some may be easier to empathise with than others, the brilliantly observed portrayal of their differing characteristics should make each character instantly recognisable to any audience. Yes, they can be somewhat stereotypical (the rebellious teenage daughter and the long-haired slacker son in particular) but they are never two-dimensional.
Also working in its favour, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life has a great soundtrack. I remember sitting in the cinema watching the opening scenes of the family dog’s funeral set to the strains of Sinclair’s Lost Heart and thinking “I’m gonna love this film”! Like Wes Anderson, Bezancon has great taste in music and weaves some of his favourite songs smoothly into the narrative. So alongside the wonderful score by French artist Sinclair we also get snatches of songs by great British artists, such as David Bowie’s Time and The Divine Comedy’s In Pursuit of Happiness.
Ultimately, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is a slice of life but a slice carefully cut to include all the tastiest morsels. Though what we see of the Duval family gives us the impression of dysfunction we must also bear in mind that these are just five significant days from a twelve year period. Amongst the arguments and tensions of each of the five days, we also glimpse moments of warmth and celebration and Bezancon hints that this is closer to the mark on any normal day. When we take a moment to consider the ups and downs experienced by the characters across the course of the film in relation to our own tempestuous navigations through adolescence, the Duvals actually seem a lot more normal in retrospect.