THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING

Directed by Benoît Mariage

Written by Mariage, Emmanuelle Bada, Jean-Luc Seigle and Margane Simon

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films

***


Along with  the Dardenne brothersí ROSETTA and Hélene Angelís SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST, this delightful Belgian film demonstrates the vitality of regional French-language cinema. The American stereotype of French cinema - middle-class young Parisians falling in love and arguing in cafés - no longer seems to hold much weight for actual  filmmakers. (Maybe Arnaud Desplechin's MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT destroyed the genre by inflating it to epic length.) If the city belongs to the couple, the countryside belongs to the family, as directors ranging from the Dardennes to Sandrine Veysset and Bruno Dumont have used it as a setting for stories about people too vulnerable - due to youth or poverty - to escape its bonds. No one's likely to mistake THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING for the miserabilism of ROSETTA or WILL IT SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS, but it shares much of their uneasiness about the potential opressiveness of life in the provinces. At the same time, its sense of humor makes connections across national and linguistic boundaries; Belgium isn't Bill Forsyth's Scotland or Ealing Studios' England, but Mariage's vision of small towns as a haven for behind-the-scenes eccentricity and tinkering reminds me of them.

THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING centers around a family led by Roger (Benoit Poelvoorde), a photographer determined to improve his station in life by making his mark in the Guinness Book of World Records. When not out chasing ambulances, Roger is appalled by his son Michael (Jean-François Devigne), who shows little motivation for  anything more strenuous than research for a radio show devoted to pointing out continuity errors in movies. Obsessed with the idea of breaking a record, Roger hires a coach to train Michel for the open field of door-opening-and-closing.

Given its inclusion of incidents like Roger's decision to hire an Elvis impersonator to serenade someone out of a coma, the screenplay for THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING could easily have been turned into a sitcom-like farce, but Mariage adopts a dry, deadpan tone instead. Rather than emphasizing gags with quick cuts and reaction shots, he lets humor emerge out of the characters' behavior through long takes. He never forces the film into the mold of either comedy or tragedy; it partakes of both, sometimes simultaneously, but we remain free to respond to it as we wish. Poelvoorde, who's best-known for his role as a serial killer in the quasi-documentary MAN BITES DOG, is equally impressive here, playing the kind of tyrannical father who unwittingly damages his children by forcing them to live out his obsessions. His performance is so finely shaded that Roger never comes across as a monster, and Mariage has more on his mind than making yet another "bad daddy" film in the vein of THE APPLE, THE CELEBRATION or HAPPINESS. He's interested in Roger's entire family and the larger community beyond them. Michel spends half of the film silent, but his eight-year-old sister Louise (Margane Simon) comes to serve as a stand-in for the spectator, taking in the sights with a welcome openness and without being damaged by Roger's madness the way her brother is.  If there's much hope for this family (and the final scene promises a new beginning, with Roger finally using his camera for something other than exploiting other people's misery), it lies in her.