The mother and daughter relationship at the heart of Copacabana is not a million light years away from the dynamic explored in the British television series Absolutely Fabulous, where the mature daughter had to put up with her mother’s frequently infantile behaviour. In Copacabana the mother, who goes by the nickname Babou (Isabelle Huppert), is something like an impulsive teenager with her restless and extroverted behaviour. She is a glorious force of nature with a lust for life and a constant desire to travel and not be tied down. The downside of her personality is that she can also be unreliable, petulant and self-centred. Worse of all, she has become an embarrassment to her daughter Esméralda (played by Huppert’s actual daughter Lolita Chammah) who while once close to her mother now craves stability. A rather painful encounter early in the film between the pair results in Babou moving to Belgium to sell time-share apartments.
Isabelle Huppert has an extraordinary filmography behind her, having worked with distinguished directors from all over the world. She has acted in a diverse range of roles, but more recently she is perhaps best known for some of her extremely gritty roles in films such as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) and Claire Denis’s White Material (2009). It is somewhat pleasing to now see her in a more light-hearted role playing a character that has a similar energy to the Poppy character Sally Hawkins played in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, although Babou is not as selfless and assured as Poppy was. However, like Happy-Go-Lucky, Copacabana is not a broad comedy relying on big belly laughs but more a socially observant comedy/drama.
Writer/director Marc Fitoussi does a marvellous job capturing the strained mother/daughter relationship and the uncomfortable nature of starting a dubious job. Babou is an immediately recognisable character and both Fitoussi and Huppert make her extremely endearing while still openly presenting all her flaws. It would have been easy to take cheap shots at a character like Babou as an ‘out-of-touch, do-gooder bohemian’ but instead Copacabana presents us with a woman who, for all her temperamental behaviour, is a good person with a generous and loving nature. The lack of cynicism from the filmmakers and the lead character means that Copacabana ends up being an extremely charming and sweet film, pleasingly revealing yet another side to the chameleon-like Isabelle Huppert.