Beautiful sun-drenched vistas, charming leads and awkward humour throughout a surface level “midlife crisis” film – it’s a cinematic cocktail we’ve seen before, one or two of which seem to pop up every French or Italian Film Festival and for the most part aren’t tedious to sit through. But even with its modest ambitions, Eric Lavaine’s Barbecue fails to do much of note. Ostensibly concerned with big issues, its promising incendiary tensions and adult themes are continually deflated and combined with an uncertain structure around the film’s characters, never really amounts to…well, anything really.
Middle-aged Antoine (Lambert Wilson) has it all: a house, a good career, a wife… if you’re groaning already, then I’ve succeeded in drawing your in vicariously to my viewing experience with the film – opening with an American Beauty style first person narration, the film unironically assumes the tropes we’ve seen in countless films like this, in everything from Breaking Bad to A Christmas Carol to Jeff Winger in Community. Antoine’s perfect life is threatened by a health scare, which makes him re-evaluate his priorities and relationships in his life, when he goes away with his old university friends.
His friends include recently separated Baptiste (Franck Dubosc) and Olivia (Florence Foresti) and an assemblage of other undeveloped characters dealing with other issues that comes across as an attempt at adult issues bingo rather than an incisive vivisection of middle age – divorce, professional/financial strain, intimacy, children – that can be the strongest and weakest parts of the film. The actors all make the most of some thankless roles, and there is very solid chemistry between the three leads that supports some uninspired sequences. However, the film never really decides whether this is Antoine’s story with supporting characters, or a full on ensemble cast resembling something like Tyler Perry’s wonderful Why Did I Get Married? films in its best moments. It works better when it’s the latter, but both sides get underdeveloped. For a group of eight people, most characters only register through some expository dialogue, while Antoine’s own journey is similarly underwritten – the key crisis in his character arc is ostensibly his separation with his wife, but we don’t get any grounding in their relationship to invest in that story at all.
The film seems to be aware when it verges on interesting material – some very harsh truths and revelations are yelled between characters, but it’s a film that pulls punches and these conflicts ultimately aren’t followed to their organic conclusions. Some interesting sideplots get ignored, such as the character of Jean-Mich’ (Jérôme Commandeur) – in a film otherwise blind to its central character’s class privilege, Jean-Mich is the only of them with a blue-collar job, and we learn later that he met them at university while working in the cafeteria, not in their Business degree. It hints at these anxieties but never goes any further. Likewise for a mid-life crisis film no genuinely provocative attitudes of characters come to light and issues mostly resolve themselves on their own, with the film’s thesis eventually coming down to a pretty shallow celebration of friendship. The last scene suggests further adventures (and possibly a sequel) as their car takes a wrong turn, heading down the road less travelled – it’s a shame this can’t be said about the creative process that brought this film to life.