CODA, and La Famille Bélier

CODA won the 2021 Best Picture Oscar, and two others: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father), in fact a clean sweep as those were the only three categories in which it was nominated. Dune won six Oscars that year, and the Hugo, and the Ray Bradbury Award. Apart from CODA and Dune I have seen two of the there nominees for Best Picture, Belfast and Don’t Look Up; I have not seen Drive My Car, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog or the remake of West Side Story.

Apart from this, I have also seen the other four Hugo finalists, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which I voted for myself), Encanto, Space Sweepers and The Green Knight. I think the only other film I had seen was The Dig, about Sutton Hoo. Sticking my neck out, I liked CODA better than any of them. IMDB users rank it 23rd of 2021’s films on one list and 35th on the other, which is rather low. Dune and Spiderman: No Way Home top the two lists.

Here’s a trailer:

There’s one actor who has been in Doctor Who, and one who was in a previous Oscar winner. The Doctor Who crossover is rather spectacular: it’s Emilia Jones, who plays CODA’s protagonist Ruby, and was also the child singer Merry in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor story The Rings of Akhaten.

The Oscar crossover actor is the rather less prominent Armen Garo, seen here on the left in CODA as Gio Salgado, the guy who runs the fish auction:

Fifteen years before, he was the unnamed First Providence Gangster in The Departed, on the right here with Leonardo DiCaprio on the left:

The film is about Ruby, the child of deaf adults (hence the title, CODA), who can hear, unlike her parents and older brother, who communicate with her through American Sign Language. They run a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which as it happened I visited with my family in 2005. Times are hard for the family and the fishing industry, and a new music teacher discovers that Ruby has an impressive talent for singing. She navigates her parents’ utter incomprehension, her feelings for the cute boy in the choir, her best friend’s romance with her brother and her own self-esteem in order to get to an audition for a top music school in Boston.

It’s beautifully filmed with the northeast Massachusetts sea, town, school and countryside all vividly depicted. (There are some great scenes with Ruby and the Cute Boy swimming together at an isolated lake.) The acting is absolutely top notch. I loved Marlee Matlin as pollster Joey Lucas in The West Wing (she was in at least one episode in every season, from 2000 to 2006) and I loved her here as Ruby’s mother. As mentioned previously, Troy Kotsur got an Oscar for playing her father.

And I have to be honest, the basic story of disability as a part of life that people live with and get on with, but also the effects that it has on a family, hit home very hard for me. The climax where Ruby sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (in the video above) had me in tears. The last Oscar-winner that did that to me, I think, was The Sound of Music, though Terms of Endearment and The King’s Speech came close. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great film objectively, but it does shoot it right to the top of my personal table, and I’m ranking it at 7th place out of 94, just below Schindler’s List and ahead of Rebecca,

This is the first Oscar winner specifically made as a remake of an existing film – though Marty was based on a previously broadcast teleplay, and My Fair Lady stands on the shoulders of the 1938 Pygmalion, tracking it shot for shot in some scenes. CODA is based on the 2014 Franco-Belgian film La Famille Bélier, which I also sat down and watched. Here’s a trailer.

It’s almost exactly the same story as CODA, with some changes which don’t affect the thrust of the plot. The Bélier family have a farm rather than a fishing boat. The deaf brother is younger rather than older than the protagonist. The music college is in Paris, not Boston. The dad decides to run for mayor rather than to challenge the vested interests of fishing. (I remember reading somewhere, a couple of decades ago, that out of every sixty adult French men, one on average then held a locally elected municipal office of some kind. That’s probably shifted a bit with population growth and better gender equality, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still in that ball park.)

We still have the protagonist forced to take on an adult role for her family’s business; we still have the cute boy singer in the choir, and the best friend’s romance with the deaf brother; we still have the hilarious scene in the doctor’s office, and the parents having loud sex while the protagonist’s friend is in the house; we still have the eccentric music teacher who spots the young girl’s talent; we still have the dramatic fade-out of the sound-track during the school concert so that we can appreciate the experience of the deaf parents; we still have the dramatic dénouement of the audition. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake, but it’s very much the same story, told somewhat differently.

La Famille Bélier is funnier than CODA, and it’s also sexier (the songs are much more explicit and there’s a totally hilarious scene involving a condom). The music is also, frankly, better. Here, the music teacher is obsessed with the work of singer-songwriter Michel Sardou, and makes the choir and the protagonist sing nothing else. This gives the soundtrack a musical unity that the American remake lacks, and makes the whole thing much more earwormy. In particular, Paula’s final song at her audition, Sardou’s “Je vole”, made me cry even more than Ruby’s “Both Sides Now” in the American version. It’s a song about suicide, but the film turns it into a hymn to emancipation. Stunning stuff from 17-year-old Louanne, whose real life was not without complications; her father had died the previous year, and her mother died while the film was being made.

Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
Elle m’observait hier
Soucieuse, troublée, ma mère
Comme si elle le sentait
En fait elle se doutait, entendait
J’ai dit que j’étais bien
Tout à fait l’air serein
Elle a fait comme de rien
Et mon père démuni a souri
Ne pas se retourner
S’éloigner un peu plus
Il y a gare une autre gare
Et enfin l’Atlantique
My mother was watching me yesterday
Anxious, troubled
As if she felt it
In fact she suspected, heard me say
That I was fine
Looking quite serene
She acted like nothing
And my poor father smiled
Don’t look back
move away a bit more
There is another station
And finally the Atlantic
Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
J’me demande sur ma route
Si mes parents se doutent
Que mes larmes ont coulé
Mes promesses et l’envie d’avancer
Seulement croire en ma vie
Tout ce qui m’est promis
Pourquoi, où et comment
Dans ce train qui s’éloigne
Chaque instant
I wonder on my way
If my parents suspect
That my tears have flowed
My promises and the desire to move forward
Just believe in my life
All that’s promised to me
Why, where and how
In this train that is moving away
Every moment
C’est bizarre cette cage
Qui me bloque la poitrine
Je ne peux plus respirer
Ça m’empêche de chanter
It’s very weird, this cage
Blocking my chest
Stopping my breath
Keeping me from singing
Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
Je vole, je vole
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
I’m flying, I’m flying

I loved La Famille Bélier, but CODA does score over it in a couple of important respects. The more important issue is that the supporting actors in CODA are genuinely deaf, whereas the French parents are played by hearing actors (the brother is genuinely deaf in both films). This is just really important for honest representation. We’ve come a long way from the second Oscar-winner, The Broadway Melody, where there was a character with a comic disability. (It’s currently at the very bottom of my league table of Oscar winners.) But we still need to give people their own voices.

The other point is that CODA is more politically on point. La Famille Bélier has a patronising mayor ultimately getting his just deserts at the hands of the voters, with Paula’s father as the agent of his downfall. CODA has the grim reality of late-stage capitalism dragging down the entire town and its industry, and the efforts of Ruby’s family to reverse the tide while also overcoming their own challenges. It’s played for real, rather than for laughs, and I think helps give it the edge as the better of the two films.

Only one Oscar-winner left: Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is also up for the Hugo this year.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)