The 2008 film “Departures” is a somber drama set against “the Japanese way of death,” the fastidious customs, traditions and taboos dealing with a corpse that society there still clings to.
I couldn’t help but think of that film watching the post-mortem scenes in actress-writer/director Maïwenn’s “DNA,” in which characters weep and bicker, caress and pose for death-bed selfies with their beloved father, grandfather and great grandfather after his peaceful death in a French nursing home.
It’s all kind of comical, and when the arguments descend into storm-off-furious debates over “eco-friendly” coffins and cremation and the religious or secular nature of the funeral to be, it’s almost hilarious.
Because one of the jokes here, in this fairly serious movie about a woman’s search for her heritage and furious feuds with assorted members of her family over that, is we have no damned idea what “tradition” we’re seeing, save for a multi-cultural, multigenerational family making this up on the fly and doing a lot of yelling at each other as they do.
Patriarch Emir (Omar Marwan) suffered from Alzheimer’s, but with a lot of help, produced a book about his history — an Algerian revolutionary who fled to France where he created this family. But his Franco-Algerian/Secular-Islamo-Catholic funeral brings all the fissures within that family to the fore, with people shoving each other away from the pulpit as they impose their vision of what that funeral should be on the deceased, and each other.
Writer-director Maïwenn, whom I remember from the thriller “High Tension,” plays granddaughter Neige, keenly aware that her name is a Francophonish version of something more overtly “Algerian.” She fights with her younger sister (Marine Vacth) and brother Matteo (Henri-Noël Tabary) about their refusal to change plans so that they can be at the funeral. She fights with her mother (screen legend Fanny Ardant) over the religious nature of the funeral, and pretty much everything else. Flippant brother François (Louis Garrel of “Little Women”) wishes she was more laid-back, less “toxic.” Her estranged father (Alain Françon) catches his share of quiet-voiced abuse for merely showing up.
When we see the fight her mother (Ardant) and aunt (Caroline Chaniolleau) over the fabric that will line their father’s to-be-burned-right-after coffin, we see where Neige got her combative streak from.
There’s “fractious,” and generations argue and mourn and put off the nursing home staff and coroner who wants to remove the body, and there are “factions” as they break into groups, each with agendas.
We don’t see a reading of the will, something which — other things considered — is a blessing.
What we do see are pre-cremation rituals, a funeral service that flirts with getting out of hand and Neige trying to get a handle on her identity, going so far as visiting the Algerian consulate to apply for citizenship and going online for a DNA test to tell her where her heritage lies, and which of her family lines is dominant.
Maïwenn does a wonderful job of creating that “difficult” and “needy” “make-a-scene” relative that no one likes very much by the time the body is in the ground or in the furnace. It takes talent to be this unlikable, a woman given to lectures on propriety, “sticking up for” her secular/religion-hating grandpa by shoving religion into his funeral, and dressing, smoking and drinking as if she’s wishing Islamic tradition on everybody but herself.
Garrel is fiesty and bemused as François, who wants this funeral to be a “profound” (in French with English subtitles) experience and who is sure to roll his eyes as the funeral service slideshow plays out in what looks like a Catholic church as Islamic funeral singing and Celine Dion alternate on the mid-service soundtrack.
I’ve been to some funny funerals, but that takes Ṣalāt al-Janāzah.
It’s a pity the movie couldn’t have ended there, its dramatic climax, or shortly thereafter, as DNA results come in for Neige.
As it is, Maïwenn takes us places the story doesn’t comfortably need to go and loses herself in her character’s journey to the detriment of what has been a darkly funny, touchingly human “family” story right up to the epilogue.
As anybody in Vegas will tell you, everything that comes after Celine Dion is anticlimactic.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, smoking, profanity
Cast: Maïwenn, Fanny Ardant, Louis Garrel, Marine Vacth, Omar Marwan, Alain Françon, Caroline Chaniolleau and Dylan Robert.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Maïwenn. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30