Opening in theaters and on Apple TV+ this week, CODA has been greatly anticipated since its smash debut last January at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival. There, it won the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes, and prompted a distributor bidding war that raked in a record-breaking $25 million. By all accounts, CODA is a sure bet, an uplifting crowd-pleaser about a Child of Deaf Adults (thus the acronym) who discovers her talent for singing, played by a fresh-faced starlet (Emilia Jones), that puts enough of a twist on coming-of-age formulas to certify ‘fresh.’ As Katey Rich wrote in Vanity Fair, “You’ve seen versions of this story before, sure—but this one deserves another spin.”
What Rich—and much post-Sundance coverage of the new film—fails to note is that CODA is quite literally a ‘version of this story’ seen before. It is an English-language remake of the 2014 French dramedy La Famille Bélier [The Bélier Family], a $55 million domestic box office hit in France, never released in the US. Perhaps, as Variety critic Peter Debruge speculated, would-be distributors into the US market calculated that La Famille Bélier’s feel-good premise “would play best to those with little patience for subtitles,” which is also to say that it was too cheery and commercial for American art house snobs. Instead then, Debruge suggested, the French hit was “ripe” for a Hollywood remake, readily consumable by the English-speaking masses. To pluck that promising fruit, U.S. producer Patrick Wachsberger bought the rights; enlisted Siân Heder to adapt the script and direct; and co-financed the project with Pathé and La Famille Beliér’s original French production company, Vendôme.
It is easy to see the potential these filmmakers and film-financiers saw, both in La Famille Beliér’s (bankable) strengths and its (correctable) weaknesses. Indeed, deafness has been explored in cinema with reliable ticket-selling and award-winning effects since at least 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, which garnered four Oscar nominations and a Best Actress win for deaf actress Marlee Matlin. Last year, Sound of Metal (2019), about a drummer with progressive hearing loss and the deaf community he joins, was good for five Oscar nominations and two wins, in Sound and Film Editing.
Given the Seventh Art’s love of music—one of the most powerful weapons in its audiovisual arsenal—it makes sense that it has made emotional hay out of the loss (or absence) of music as a particularly poignant tragedy of deafness or hearing loss, to the point of cliché and the consternation of some deaf critics. (See also Mr. Holland’s Opus , the Creed franchise [2015; 2018], and A Star is Born ). Most specifically in relation to Bélier and CODA, the German film Beyond Silence (1996, dir. Caroline Link) proved just how sympathetic a C.O.D.A. protagonist could be, and how richly dramatic the dynamics of a mixed hearing/deaf family, particularly the irony of a C.O.D.A. with an innate gift for music (in this case, for the clarinet)—riding them all the way to a Foreign Language Oscar nomination.
Like Beyond Silence, La Famille Bélier’s greatest strength is its female C.O.D.A. protagonist and the actress who plays her: Louane Emera, a Florence Pugh-lookalike with the voice of an angel, cast by director Éric Lartigau on the strength of her performance—and phenomenal popular appeal—on France’s version of the television singing contest, The Voice. Beautiful in that relatable way, Emera carries the film, which opens on her character Paula, as she confers with a veterinarian about a just-born calf on her family’s dairy farm in rural northwestern France at dawn. As the Bélier family’s only hearing member, Paula is immediately sympathetic, uncomplainingly devoted to translating between them and the hearing world, wise beyond her years. Her affability and bilingual fluency (in sign and spoken language) are crucial to the farm’s success. On the school bus, she deftly negotiates supply contracts. At a weekend farmer’s market, she negotiates interactions with customers, including the smarmy town mayor, who serves to typify—and vilify—condescending attitudes towards people with disabilities, including Paula’s parents.
Unfortunately, just as Paula is La Famille Bélier’s greatest strength, her parents are its greatest weakness. Rodolphe and Gigi are played respectively by François Damiens and Karin Viard, both of whom are hearing actors best known for comic roles, controversially enough. (In contrast, Paula’s deaf brother is played by deaf actor, Luca Gelberg.) Jarringly, Gigi and Rodolphe are played for laughs, especially in the first two-thirds of the film. Their appearances precipitate odd shifts in tone from drama to crude slapstick, sometimes even accompanied with a goofy soundtrack. Used to underscore Paula’s pluck, they seem determined to embarrass her, not because they are deaf but because they are tone-deaf. Rodolphe lays on the horn to pick up Paula from school and, in one scene, conducts a conversation with his hand up a cow’s ass. Costumed in a jokily bright and print-forward wardrobe, Gigi excitedly exhibits Paula’s menstrual blood-stained pants to Paula’s crush. And they have loud sex when Paula’s best friend Mathilde (Roxane Duran) visits; this despite a doctor’s advice of three-weeks’ abstinence to cure a case of thrush—which Paula translates (and I watched) in full cringe.
In typical coming-of-age fashion, the main conflict arises in La Famille Bélier when Paula discovers her own “voice.” Here, this common metaphor is literalized when Paula joins the school choir, on a whim because she has the hots for its star-pupil Gabriel (Ilian Bergala). (Mathilde chides her for “acting like Bella in Twilight,” the high bar of moony teen lust the world-over, apparently.) Quickly, though, it becomes clear that Paula’s vocal talents eclipse Gabriel’s, and that her passion for singing eclipses her ardor for him. The school’s choir director, Monsieur Thomasson (Éric Elmosnino)–a caricature of the burnt-out teacher whose flame is reignited by an exceptional student–immediately recognizes Paula’s “gift.” He sets out to help her develop it, first for a school concert and then an audition to a music college in Paris. As happy as a lark, and as naturally songful, Paula belts out Michel Sardou’s “En chantant [Singing],” the lyrics of which proclaim how much better life is when doing so. Beside Thomasson’s piano, the film lingers on the pleasure of Paula’s melodious, and therefore convincing, delivery of this sentiment. For good reason then, Paula worries that her newfound singing voice will forever alienate her from her family. She keeps mum about her lessons until, inevitably, they come into conflict with her parents’ agenda, in running the farm and, as it happens, Rodolphe’s mayoral run. Angry, Gigi tells Paula she was heartbroken when Paula was born hearing, because she foresaw it as the source of their inevitable rift.
Still, Gigi and Rodolphe agree to attend the school concert, where Paula’s performance provokes tears and a standing ovation from the audience. Mid-song, Lartigue silences the soundtrack to render Gigi and Rodolphe’s perspective, a gimmick also used in the final scene of Sound of Metal, to quite different effect. In the latter film, the silencing is cathartic, experienced—by the protagonist and film viewer—as peaceful relief, signaling the drummer-protagonist’s acceptance of his hearing loss after much (cacophonous) struggle. But in La Famille Bélier, the silencing reads as tragic, the cutting off of the music that the audience (diegetic and non-diegetic) rapturously enjoys, made all the more painful because it is their own daughter’s voice they are denied. In this scene, deafness is rendered as pitiable “handicap,” even as dialogue explicitly rejects that connotation elsewhere.
But this is a feel-good story, and so this painful conflict will be neatly resolved. Paula’s concert triumph convinces Rodolphe and Gigi that Paula must pursue her passion. Predawn, the Béliers race to Paris for the audition. As her family watches from the balcony, Paula busts out Sardou’s “Je Vole [I Fly],” the lyrics of which are cloyingly on-the-nose, which didn’t stop the tears from running down mine: “Dear parents, I leave/I love you, but I leave…I’m not fleeing/I’m flying.” As if that weren’t enough, Paula then signs the lyrics for her family, finding a way to make the song a bridge—rather than a chasm—between them. (Compare this to the scene in Children of a Lesser God in which James [William Hurt] struggles unsuccessfully to translate Bach to his deaf lover, Sarah [Matlin]). Despite its obviousness, this climax’s emotional wallop is undeniable, and no doubt clinched the film’s status as remake-able.
By all reports, CODA capitalizes on La Famille Bélier’s (formulaic) strengths and has addressed some of the original film’s weaknesses, not least of all in better developing the roles of the parents, hiring deaf actors to play them (including Matlin as the mother), and generally treating deafness with greater sensitivity. It is also reported that the climatic song has been changed from Sardou’s “Je Vole” to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a tear-jerker of a tune about the losses and gains of growing up, shifting perspectives, and leave-taking, the lyrics of which promise to be similarly on-the-nose: “Tears and fears and feeling proud/To say ‘I love you’ right out loud.”
Please excuse me while I restock my Kleenex, no matter my familiarity with (and qualms about) this already-told tale.