Film review – Copacabana (2010)

Copacabana: Esméralda (Lolita Chammah) and Babou (Isabelle Huppert)
Esméralda (Lolita Chammah) and Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

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.

Copacabana: Babou (Isabelle Huppert)
Babou (Isabelle Huppert)

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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. I saw this film last night at the Nova. I like your review and your rating – I gave the film 3 stars in my head. I agree that it shows yet another side to Isabelle Huppert’s acting skills. I’d forgotten Esmerelda is played by Huppert’s daughter so your reference was a nice reminder. The scenario is not particularly a new one, however it was as you say a charmingly pleasant approach reflecting the reaction of a child brought up in the aura of a free-spirited parent becoming more the adult. Children do react that way sometimes against the embarrassment of a parent who refuses to behave within the ‘norms’ society. I liked the avoidance of the Hollywood-style ending where Mum suddenly sees the light and grows up and settles down. This film remained true to the character’s free spirit broadening our viewpoint and revealing that she can listen, care and act appropriately. It was a moment of Karma that after those scenes of ‘business as usual’ at the time-share venue, Babou shrugs off self-pity, and true-to-form acts on a whim (at which point many in the audience around me sighed ‘oh dear’) that is in fact the way forward to another phase in her interesting life.

  2. Rather than merely presenting some sort of plea for tolerance of the Babou character, I thought the film was quietly and slyly subversive. Babou was depicted as a counterbalance to middleclass banality and functioned as a pure light exposing the double standards and hypocrisies that are an unfortunate prerequisite in the workplace.

    Sure, her flaws were not hidden; she was a well-rounded character, and that added to her credibility, as well as making her more endearing.

    For me, the message of this movie was stronger than you suggest in your review: that is, that free spirits like Babou, who have the guts and resolve to live their lives as they wish without bowing to society’s expectations, are to be treasured, not sternly judged.

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