“He just collapsed, with a crate in his hands.” Mme. Sforza’s (Jeanne Goupil) face is taut, her hands slowly moving as she recalls the moment of her husband’s heart attack. Her 30-year-old son Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé) also looks stricken, not quite sure what to make of this new situation. He’s just arrived from the city, summoned by his family after 10 years away. Now, he knows, his life is changed forever.
At the start of The Grocer’s Son (Le fils de l’épicier), Antoine is forced to reconsider his titular status. This reluctance is made visible in close, telling details, as he makes his way from a metro train, through a tunnel to the escalator, up into bright sunlight: the camera keeps tight on his hand, on the escalator railing, crosscutting to indicate his memory, his small child’s hand in his father’s weathered one. In the hospital corridor, the frame follows behind, leaving Antoine’s face obscured, but the stiffness of his gait suggests the dread he feels. As he greets his mother and older brother François (Stéphan Guérin Tillié), their own conflicts visible in their faces, hardly glad to see Antoine but also reassured that he’s showed up, at last.
Though no one says much in the early moments of Éric Guirado’s film, it’s clear enough that a lifetime’s worth of tensions is making everyone feel claustrophobic. As the film’s emotional center, Antoine is one of those man-boys who has never quite grown up: he’s never held a job more than a few months, he hasn’t found an abiding passion, his days are shapeless. Unsurprisingly, this lack of direction extends to his romantic life: he’s developed a crush on Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who lives down the hall in his apartment building. She’s creative, charismatic, and adorably distracted, working on an application to a university in Spain while Antoine mopes about, hoping she’ll notice him. When he brings his mother home to stay in his place — no furniture, boxes still unpacked — he takes the opportunity to stay over at Claire’s. Still, she doesn’t notice his affections, but keeps chatting breathlessly about her next day’s plans. Antoine gazes up toward the ceiling, not able to imagine what to say.
So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked into a Gallic version of a yet another Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen escapade, wherein Antoine will go through 90 minutes worth of maturation motions, complete with pratfalls and broad mugs, before at last he comes to understand the value of family, the support of a lovely young woman, and his own, long repressed generosity of spirit.
Thankfully, The Grocer’s Son is not that movie. Yes, the plot is familiar, even occasionally trite, but its impressionistic visual stylings are at once lyrical and precise, gestures toward character rather than pronouncements. When he discovers a way to bring Claire with him to the countryside (he borrows money from his mother to finance Claire’s exams), Antoine thinks he’s being sly, that finally he will have the girl’s full attention and impress her.
He doesn’t anticipate, of course, the sorts of emotional archeology he will face back among the rolling hills, the guilt he will feel, his brother’s resentment or, most significantly, the effects of spending a long, slow summer among “old folks” whose understanding of what’s important is completely inverse to his. While his father (Daniel Duval) recovers in the hospital, Antoine drives the ancient grocer’s van, delivering to a route of customers each day, his initial grumpiness earning him harrumphs and raised eyebrows. Claire’s decision to come along shows Antoine how he might actually enjoy the job, to appreciate the daily drama of widowers buying single tins of peas and women hunched over their baskets after purchasing two eggs, butter, and radishes.
Such simplicity, so annoying to Antoine at first, soon becomes bracing. When Claire convinces him one evening to paint the van in pretty pastels, with bouncy script proclaiming it “The Flying Grocer,” he knows his dad will disapprove. But suddenly, the daily work is social, enlightening, and energizing.
If its narrative focus on the prodigal son is familiar, the film’s compositional airiness — even in images that elsewhere would be conventional, long shots of lush green hills or closeups of rustic faces — is, in a word, lovely. This, you might sigh with some relief, is how an ordinary tale of growing up might be rendered so it almost seems new.