Summer holidays on the seaside provide plenty of fodder for a certain type of French cinema dealing with sexual awakenings wrapped with witty comedy. Eric Rohmer used the motif in his simple and mischievous A Summer’s Tale (1996) and François Ozon explored the same narrative path with his career-making short A Summer Robe (1996). Cockles and Muscles, by the directing duo Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Drôle de Félix, Ma Vie), fits in with this small string of films, but expands the concept further to create a semi-idealised view of family life based on fluid sexualities and acceptance. The result is a feel-good, sparkling comedy punctuated with exclamation mark moments and hints of vaudeville. To top it all up, there is even a full-blown musical scene.
The characters are played by a real coup of a cast. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is a vision of languidness and debonair attitude as the liberal, pot-smoking Béatrix. She and her husband Marc (Gilbert Merki) are spending summer holidays in Marc’s family cottage in the Côte d’azur with their two teenage children, Martin (Edouard Collin) and Laura (Sabrina Seyvecou). Martin’s best friend, the openly gay Charly, joins the family and ignites a series of character entrances that mark the narrative shifts and plot twists that propel the film forward in a pleasant, rhythmic way. Charly, who represents the type of post-New Queer gay character whose sexuality is a given and not a source of conflict, nurtures a platonic love for Martin, who pretends to be gay to his parents so that they leave him alone. Meanwhile Laura, who is on screen only as a sporadic support, is more interested in copping off with her motorbike-straddling stallion.
Once the scene is set, after a few showers (an important motif in the film) and the recurring sounds of doors being slammed, a couple more characters enter the fray to protagonise new episodes. Saying exactly who they are and what they do would spoil the unexpected surprises that the script generously provide but what happens during the holiday changes the family dynamics for good as well as the notion of what makes a ‘family movie’.
One of the pleasures derived from watching this film stems from the precise timing of the actors and the often quirky dialogue exchanges. Ducastel and Martineau prove with this new addition to their filmography that they definitely are a force to reckon with in French cinema, evidence of which was clear with the tender road movie Dróle de Felix (2000) and the experimental video diary Ma vraie vie à Rouen (2002). In Cockles and Muscles, they use elements of gay culture, such as Charly’s dress code, Jean Marc Barr’s clone-ish Didier, trips to a cruising spot etc, and strip them of any political or moral connotation, something that comedy is more apt to do than drama. Clichés are used with a well-measured dose of irony and appear completely acceptable because of that as well as the comic effect they create.
There is no confrontation in Cockles and Muscles, only interaction and a sense of discovery that the characters find in each other, especially the older ones. Martineau said that when writing the script he tried to find a balance between Jacques Demy’s action-ridden style and Rohmer’s wit. It’s safe to say that his intention to do that was accomplished.
Cockles and Muscles (Crustaces et Coquillages) is out in the UK on 14/04/06.