On Character, Family, Nature and Love: The Grocer’s Son, by Eric Guirado

Families Are Like Civilizations

by Daniel Garrett Volume 12, Issue 7 / July 2008 14 minutes (3405 words)

The Grocer’s Son
Directed by Eric Guirado
Produced by Milena Poylo & Gilles Sacuto
(A Film Movement/Les Films du Losange release)
Screenplay Eric Guirado & Florence Vignon,
based on an original story by Eric Guirado
Production Design by Valerie Faynot
Cinematography by Laurent Brunet
Editing by Pierre Haberer
Starring: Nicolas Cazale, Clotilde Hesme, Daniel Duval, Jeanne Goupil,
Stephan Guerin Tillie, Liliane Rovere, Paul Crauchet, Chad Chenouga

Families, like civilizations, are unique: they are shaped by personalities, values, and resources in ways that are hard to balance, maintain, or predict. Accidents and whims can be as powerful as deep commitments. In Eric Guirado’s film The Grocer’s Son, a young man, handsome, independent, sensitive, sensual, sullen, and alienated from his family, a family he left to explore unspecified ambitions, lives in a city in France, in Lyon, working as a waiter and also infatuated with a neighbor with whom he has a friendly but not intimate relationship. It is the young man’s impulsive response to his restaurant manager’s rudeness, as much as his harsh father’s serious illness, that compels the young man, Antoine (Nicolas Cazale), to leave his job and return to his family, who reside in a small town, in the country. The bickering that goes on between the members of the family—the castigating, ill father, the pleasant but complaining mother, the critical but dependable older brother, and the prodigal son Antoine, the younger brother—is far from anyone’s notion of an ideal and it contrasts even with the joyful old home movies we see of the father and his two sons when they are small boys. Yet, this seems an ordinary family. It is scary to think of how far our intimate lives can be from our hopes and ambitions; and how far our civic life can be from our ideals and even laws. It is interesting, and frightening, to consider how we are able to maintain, and maintain for years, the contradiction between who we are and who we hope to be.

In the film The Grocer’s Son, which opens with the lead character, Antoine (Nicolas Cazale), taking a subway as part of his trip to a hospital to visit his suddenly ill father, and ends with Antoine saying goodbye to his father and mother as they await a country train before Antoine resumes work duties and spends time with a girlfriend at an open-air picnic beside his family’s grocery van, we observe the differences between city life in Lyon, and small town life in Provence. We can see also the distance between individual independence and family, between silence and disclosure, grudges and forgiveness, indifference and generosity, and friendship and love. While Paris is in north, central France, Lyon is south, just above Provence; and Lyon, an old city, and once a colony of Rome (before Christ), was long known for printing and poetry and the Lumiere brothers’ invention of cinema, as well as banking and industry; and Lyon now has museums, theaters, opera, festivals, schools, hospitals, markets, and parks. The Lyon setting in the film mostly presents us with specifics—a neighborhood, the younger son Antoine’s apartment and that of his neighbor Claire, his friend Hassan’s grocery store. The French countryside—the family store in a small town, the large hills and fields outside town, and the houses and roads and lakes in Provence, in southeastern France—sometimes recall French landscape paintings. (Paul Cezanne was born in Provence, and Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, and Van Gogh all painted there at one time or another. Provence’s cultural history is older than that: there are old caves, caves thousands of years old, featuring drawings of animals in Provence.) In The Grocer’s Son, a film of both stillness and movement, the characters travel from one place to another, from town to country, and from isolation to community; and there are moments when something breaks through—some aspect of contemplation and energy and sensuality—that seems to suggest more than the logic of story, more than the expectations we bring to a film; and that something is significant possibility, that moment when we can go beyond what is predictable. Is it possible to grow and change? Is reconciliation possible—reconciliation not simply with a family member or a lover, but with life itself?

One has a sense of real lives in a real world. It is a beautiful film but that is a beauty without seeming artifice, without pretension. The scenes unfold naturally—a conversation can move from pleasantries to rumination to argument to reconciliation or resignation. Long shots, medium shots, close-ups—the film technique does not draw undue attention to itself, but serves the story. The film earns belief through its presentations of facts: faces, bodies, movements, landscapes, vehicles, villages, rooms.

One of the earliest scenes in The Grocer’s Son is of the family assembled in a hospital, not far from the father’s hospital bed. They are there in response to the father’s apparent heart attack. The oldest son François was with the father when he had his collapse, and may be the reason why the father is still alive (in the same way, later, Antoine will happen to be where François is during a weak moment; and will be credited with saving François). The father is very ill; and it seems possible that the very worst will happen. One might think that all thoughts will be for the father’s well-being, but soon the father’s oldest son François (Stephan Guerin Tillie) is making sniping comments about the younger brother’s dubious dependability. The hospital will not let the mother spend the night; and the younger brother Antoine—chided by his older brother François—brings the mother home to his, Antoine’s, small apartment, where Antoine has not unpacked boxes from his move into the apartment. Antoine begins to make room in the apartment for his mother, and clean the shower, and allow her to sleep in his bed, while he sleeps on his neighbor Claire’s (Clotilde Hesme) sofa. Claire is planning to go to college and is involved in a preparatory course, though she also works for not very much money (she’s concerned that the required deductions leave her little); and she is casually welcoming of Antoine’s intrusion. It is clear that Antoine’s mother is not used to being catered to or used to being alone (Antoine has to ask her twice if she wants something to drink; and she remains awake and alert at night). Antoine will feel inspired to borrow money from his mother to help Claire afford some of the college costs, and Antoine will agree in turn to work for the family business to pay his mother back.

Antoine and Claire

The father is a longtime grocer, the main director of the family business, which consists of a store and a delivery truck, which he uses to visit the countryside and serve elderly citizens. The father, played by Daniel Duval, is an angry and bitter man, forceful and aggressive, dominating his family; and his youngest son, Antoine, has been the one to most resist his dominance, for which the father is unforgiving. When the father awakes in the hospital, his second comment is about whether Antoine has visited; and yet, despite that concern, he tries to insist on maintaining his distance from his son. (One intuits the misunderstanding and rage that must have been built up over time between father and son. Upon returning to the family home, Antoine wonders where his stuff is—his father threw most of it out.) Even when Antoine moves to the country and drives the grocery truck, resuming his father’s route and making money, the father is disapproving. The father complains about how both the son and his wife are handling the business. (The mother, upon the father’s return, finds the father troublesome and talks back to him—and he says that she did not used to talk to him that way. The father makes even dinner tense. “Half-dead, you’re still a pain,” Antoine tells him, not long before moving out of the house: Antoine borrows the hillside cottage of one of the grocery’s customers.) The father admits to Claire that the family just gets by, and says that if his sons had gone into business with him the family could be doing much better. We understand that part of what makes the father nasty to his family is his actual worry for them. It is not until Antoine comes to the aid of his brother François during a moment of surprising trouble that the father relents.

The mother, while pleasant and hardworking, also has her dangers: when the older brother mentions how often she calls him to complain about things that go on—such as the younger son and brother, Antoine, getting a late start in making the day’s deliveries, one can see how she contributes to the bad feeling in the family. One intuits that she has made sacrifices for her family but that she has not been required to be independent or strong, that she is not used to being the primary decision-maker or taskmaster in the family. The mother is ready to help the customers in her shop, even if it means keeping the shop open late or delaying her own dinner. She is a low-key but oddly familiar figure—there are probably a lot of women like her; and, although I do not think I have seen this actress (Jeanne Goupil) before, I felt as if the character was known to me. I think that I have met people like this, that they are numerous. The mother is surprised and pleased to realize her son and Claire are not yet sleeping together; and pleased by Claire’s healthy appetite and enjoyment of the mother’s cooking, and by Claire’s directness and simplicity. The little things are important to the mother; and the little things are all she has—or, more precisely, she has a life full of little things.

The older son, François, a hairstylist, is the loyal son, the kind who tries to observe his perceived duties and resents others who do not; and he criticizes his younger brother Antoine at different points in the film, encouraging fights. François (Stephan Guerin Tillie) seems conflicted and half-aware of his conflicts with his brother: for instance, he wants to share family photos and home movies but at the same time brings up his brother’s frustrating of the family’s wishes, what he refers to as the brother’s selfishness. (“I didn’t marry to please the folks,” says Antoine, implying that François did.) François tries to learn more about Claire, about her brief (five year) marriage, which Antoine finds intrusive. François, who has a nice but empty country house, is also a liar—hiding how his own life does not work: his wife has left him but his family does not know (when the younger brother’s friend Claire learns François’s wife is gone, François tells her they have been separated for months but even this is a lie: they have been separated for two years).

The youngest son, Antoine (Nicolas Cazale), is an alienated, withdrawn figure, someone with unfulfilled potential: he has not become what he expected to be, and he has resisted becoming anything else. He needs his restaurant job but doesn’t turn himself into a slave to keep it—he maintains his pride, refuses being disrespected, and quits it easily when he feels put upon (the restaurant manager, who has noted Antoine has been late arriving for the second time in a week, snaps his finger and speaks rudely to Antoine). Antoine has a sense of self that is admirable and dangerous, leaving him vulnerable to his own whims and to oppositional authority in the world (without his own resources, there will be, always, one authority or another that he will have to pay heed to). Antoine’s friend Hassan (Chad Chenouga) suggests that Antoine try keeping a job for three months or more; and notes that Antoine lacks the human touch. Antoine is one of those people other people are frustrated by as he refuses to make a commitment; and they see that as flightiness or weakness when he is simply not giving himself to what he does not believe in—and the thing he does believe in is not available to him. (Antoine does not assume a common humanity; and his own individuality has not been recognized or rewarded.) We do not know what his desired purpose is. Does he—or did he—want to be some kind of artist, an actor, a writer, or something else? He is attracted to Claire but apparently did not make that attraction clear to her in Lyon. When Antoine goes to the country, and first starts taking over his father’s duties, he seems to have no gift for it—he does not use much energy, charm, or imagination. (In his old room again, he plays music loud, as if returning to adolescence. In a way, Antoine is not fully formed, not mature; and it could be that, as with most would-be artists, he waits for his art form to complete him.) Antoine complains, not long after arriving and going out to sell in the family van, that what he finds reeks of death. It is as the story develops, as Antoine becomes used to being back, that Antoine begins to let himself have a less guarded response to his various customers (helping them, joking with them, and making allowances for them). Antoine becomes a better salesman and, seemingly, a better man; with Claire’s help and through his own efforts. It says something about the nature of Antoine’s relation to his family that when he does pay his mother back, he asks for a receipt signed by both parents.

Clotilde Hesme as Claire

The female friend, Claire, is unusual: she is attractive and smart in easy ways; she’s not excessively feminine or intellectual and she’s not eccentric though there is the sense that she could be. She seems very natural and has a very pleasing presence. Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who says she works all day and studies all night, is often hard at work on various preparations for school and she has mostly friendly moments with other people (she says that she does not like fights and family feuds; and that seems true—she recoils from disagreements). It is Antoine who senses she should get out of Lyon for a time, and that his going to work for his family could give her, if she joins him, a little country living that might be healthy for her. They then take the train there together; and we watch them, in one of the film’s brief, still moments of contemplation: the film focuses for quiet moments on individuals or on landscapes, and it is as if short still life studies are interspersed amid the moving picture narrative. It’s never too late to change your life, Claire says, when explaining her hopes for school (Antoine’s mother says that is youth talking). When the relationship between Antoine and Claire does take a more romantic turn, Claire looks somewhat melancholy, as if it is a complication that makes her apprehensive. Claire, although generally accepting, does get angry when she realizes that Antoine has done something careless that could affect her plans for school, but she does not hold a grudge. She, back in Lyon, welcomes a package he sends. (The actress Clotilde Hesme and her character are both charming; and she and Nicolas Cazale make one of the more attractive screen couples I have seen in a while. After seeing the film for a second time, I realized how few—if any—romantic cliches it contained. The key to their relationship is that they treat each other as human beings, as friends, rather than as desirable objects.)

When Claire and Antoine settle in his family home, in their separate rooms, he tells her goodnight, almost as if she were a member of the family, a sister; and soon we see a shot of an early morning sky—a beginning, a new day. Antoine brings the family’s grocery van to a friend’s garage for repairs—and the friend calls Antoine a city slicker and Antoine jokes about buying the friend’s garage (for a moment the friend looks worried and says the joke is not funny, that his wife wants him to sell). The friend tells Antoine how excited Antoine’s mother has been about Antoine’s returning to help. There is a shot of grazing sheep on a hillside; one of several still moments in the film—of nature; moments that convey context and something larger, something lasting, something irreducible. (There are shots of the grocery van on the road coursing through the hilly land, at different times of day; and shots of flowery fields and lovely trees.) Antoine goes out in the van for deliveries and sales, asking his father’s old customers about their needs and trying to instill a sense of responsibility regarding bringing their payments up to date. It is pleasant to see the elderly crowd round the van, pleasant to hear their French chatter. One of customers, Mr. Clement (Paul Crauchet), trades eggs for the tin of peas he wants (and gives Antoine some liquor for Antoine’s father); and later Antoine will help Mr. Clement repair his chicken coop. Antoine brings a gas cylinder to another customer, a demanding woman, Lucienne (Liliane Rovere), who remembers Antoine from when he was a boy who snooped into her private life (she gives him a tough time but befriends him too).

The nature we see in the film is something both large and intimate, something welcoming and refreshing. The still images we see of landscapes are so fleeting as to be easy to miss, and yet they are among my most favorite things in the film. Nature is something that can be taken for granted, forgotten, but when remembered, when an individual opens to it, it can be healing. One man tells Antoine and Claire that he has brought his ill wife to the country for her health, and he cites the pleasure that Antoine and Claire seem to be having together as evidence that he has made a good decision. Such a sharp observation helps us to see the effects of both the land and Claire on Antoine. Antoine is discovering a simple order—in place, in work, in relationship, and in community. We do not see man subduing nature, though that must happen—and must have happened: towns and villages do not sprout from the ground, but the film has been made with such delicacy that something else that is also true of human beings—acceptance, integration, peace—is perceptible. Is it self-forgetting (forgetting one’s most personal ambitions and motives) that allows peace in one’s self and peace with others? The broken family connections in The Grocer’s Son can seem visceral, violent; and yet it does not take very much to move beyond them. Why does it take so little to make us unhappy—or, other times, happy?

Families, like civilizations, evolve manners and morals to facilitate communication, to establish decent and useful relationships, to protect and share resources. Families, like civilizations, intend for their rules and standards to produce a certain permanence, a certain uniformity: and, whatever good they do for their members, their ultimate goal is for the institution of family or civilization itself to survive. Families, then, sometimes compel the sacrifices of its members: that those members sacrifice, or be sacrificed; and when members resist the authority and demands of the institution there is instability, conflict; and possibly change or destruction.

Films give us images of imagined lives; and we can share those imagined lives, observe their intimacies, without directly participating. Consequently, films are a great resource for the alienated, the intellectual, the radical: we are allowed to contemplate human existence anew, with more imagination, sympathy, understanding—and that is the accomplishment of Eric Guirado’s The Grocer’s Son.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 12, Issue 7 / July 2008 Film Reviews   french cinema