Life can be a scary proposition, and people usually react to its many uncertainties in one of two ways.
They either retreat to well-fortified, rigidly-controlled positions where caution and common sense are the orders of the day, or they plunge headfirst with heedless abandon into its many sweet rewards, only stopping to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune when they arise.
These two constantly jostling, divergent positions are showcased with deep insight and understanding in the charming French film Du Vent Dans Mes Mollets or The Dandelions (it literally translates as “the wind in my calves”) by Carine Tardieu, which she co-wrote with the author of the book on which the film is based, Raphaële Moussafir.
It is one of those sweetly engaging, slow-burning character studies at which the French excel, relying less on showy narrative embellishments and more on the simple re-telling of meandering detours of day-to-day life, to reveal profound yet disarmingly simple truths about the human condition.
And Du Vent Dans Mes Mollets, set in 1983, does end up saying a great deal more than you might expect when it opens with 8 year old Rachel Gladstein (Juliette Gombert) solemnly typing a letter to her therapist Ms. Trebla (Isabella Rossellini) simply saying she is “sad”.
Quite why she is so sad isn’t revealed immediately but it is clear that Rachel, a wide-eyed introspective girl who thinks far longer and deeper about life than her peers, has the weight of the world on her slight shoulders.
As we meet her family however, who are loving and close (after a fashion) but at this point are simply going through the paces of domestic life with no real passion or enthusiasm, it becomes clear that much of her angst can be slated home to her mother, Colette (Agnès Jaoui).
Determined to forge a thoughtful, ordered life untouched by any of the upheaval that her childhood move from Tunisia to France with her far more free-thinking mother (Judith Magre), who is living with the family after her nursing home kicked her out after her beau died of a heart attack while making love to her, Colette is a control-freak of epic proportions who clearly loves her daughter but for all her “helicopter parenting”, has a frustratingly tenuous connection to her.
She is mystified when Rachel challenges her from time to time, thrown by the fact that her daughter seems to have far in common in spirit with her grandmother with whom she shares a room than her own mother, and unsure how to forge a meaningful connection with her.
Like her relationship with her husband Michel (Denis Podalydès), who is the only member of his family to have survived Auschwitz (and who fell in love with his wife because of her passion for life, something she has now lost, leaving him vaguely uncertain of his place in the scheme of things), Colette is a woman adrift in life, manifestly unable to get back to shore.
It is only when Rachel returns to school, which features an amusing running gag where Colette keeps butting heads with the officious school administrator who is only ever heard via an intercom not seen, that the family, little by little comes alive, and it is all thanks to Rachel’s initially reluctant friendship with the irrepressibly upbeat, mischievous Valérie whose free-spirited single mother Catherine ( Isabelle Carré) is regarded with suspicion by her more buttoned-down counterpart, at least at first.
But as Colette, and Michel too (who fixes Catherine’s decrepit kitchen ahead of fixing his own), are slowly exposed to the admittedly chaotic home life of Catherine and Valérie (and her brother on whom Rachel develops an overpowering schoolgirl crush), and watch their previously retiring death-obsessed daughter come alive, spurred on no doubt by Valérie’s impish, open-hearted and sometimes profanity-laden, approach to life, they too find themselves shaking off the abject despondency of their overly-ordered lives and rejoining life in all its tumbling, messy grandeur.
It is a transformation, though, that is neither twee nor forced but gradual and believable, underlining the fact that Rachel’s family weren’t closed off and fortified from the vicissitudes by choice but rather circumstance, and happily, if cautiously, accept the chance to fully come alive again.
While this authentic journey to renewal is marred by missteps, the temptation to throw it all away and an unexpected tragedy, it is by and large, one that rescues the entire family from a half-lived life in the shadows.
Du Vent Dans Mes Mollets is a real, affecting and often funny film that doesn’t shy away from the fact that life can be cruel and unpredictable, wearing those living it down till they are shadows of their former selves.
But it is also boldly declares that it is possible to be resurrected from this half-lived state of being by the most unexpected of forces if only we’re open to it, and that life is too precious, and wondrous a gift to be endured rather than lived, no matter how great the forces arrayed against it.