In "C'est la Vie," the French director Diane Kurys creates a mood of dappled melancholy that never seems to attach itself to anything. Set in 1958, mostly in the French resort town of La Baule les Pins, the film is about the breakup of a family as seen through the eyes of a sensitive young girl.
Its heroine is a pretty adolescent named Frederique (Julie Bataille) who, just as the family is preparing to leave on its annual vacation, begins to notice strange, pregnant silences between her parents. At first she chooses to bury her feelings. Her own traumas, which are those of every adolescent girl at the moment of budding womanhood, are in the foreground of her thoughts. Her parents' troubles are a background disturbance, far off and obscure.
Kurys never quite gets the balance between foreground and background right. "C'est la Vie" is split between Frederique's coming of age and her parents' domestic crisis. And while these two aspects of the narrative are meant to be complementary, they intrude disastrously on each other. In addition, Kurys brings a lot of characters into her story without appearing to have a strong sense of what their function is meant to be. The time spent with them is mostly time wasted.
Rather than cut to the core of her story, the director dances around the edges, concentrating on the atmosphere and the details along the periphery. She gives us the minutiae of experience -- for example, of Frederique's emerging interest in boys and the trouble that she and her cousins get into -- without communicating their real significance. Frederique's mother, Lena (Nathalie Baye), plans to leave her husband, Michel (Jean-Pierre Bacri), because she is in love with another, much younger man. But Kurys doesn't investigate how the mother feels about the disruptions this might cause in her family.
The movie seems to hover somewhere on the fringe of becoming without ever descending to earth. The reason for this may be that neither the foreground nor the background story is terribly compelling or original. Both, in fact, traffic in the standard melodramatic cliches, which Kurys attempts to disguise with tender sensibility. What results is a kind of romantic muzziness that is without the pleasures of straightforward melodrama or the insights of something deeper or more genuinely personal.
No other filmmaker today has attempted to make more mileage out of being a woman than Kurys. Her movies present a supplementary set of perceptions about how women think and what women feel -- in short, on what it is to be a woman. But Kurys's films make a church out of femininity; there's a whiff of incense to her observations about the lives of women.
"C'est la Vie" is the third installment in a kind of loose trilogy that began with "Peppermint Soda" and "Entre Nous," and what is meant to distinguish all three films is that they are women's stories told by women, from a woman's point of view. But watching them, we don't feel the force of a fresh perspective. Instead, we're offered a parade of the same kind of diffuse generalities about relationships, marriage, romance, family and coming of age that might have come from a filmmaker of either sex. Kurys's insights are inarguably valid because she is, inarguably, a woman. But as much as we might like for it to, gender alone is no substitute for talent. C'est la Vie, at area theaters, is unrated.