Two distant cousins, Marthe (Marie-Christine Barrault) and Ludovic (Victor Lanoux) meet at a wedding banquet and discover their spouses are having an affair. A platonic friendship develops between these two confidantes, which their family suspects is really something more. Sure enough, amidst riotous parties, familial spats and amiably chaotic get-togethers, Marthe and Ludovic’s relationship blossoms into love.
This frothy rom-com was Oscar-nominated in its day but latterly critics have dismissed it as lightweight. To best appreciate its charms, viewers must accustom themselves to the freewheeling atmosphere of Seventies cinema and French comedies in particular. Less lightweight than light-hearted, Cousin, Cousine actually tackles a number of weighty themes: troubled undercurrents lurking beneath the family, bourgeois hypocrisy, double standards regarding male/female infidelity and the self-involved narcissism of the ‘Me’ decade. Bored bourgeois drifting in and out of love affairs is very Seventies subject matter (would Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen have built careers without it?) and Jean-Charles Tacchella skewers then-trendy fads like psychoanalysis (“You’re handsome. I wouldn’t have noticed without the therapy”, remarks Karine (Marie-France Pisier) to Ludovic).
Yet beneath the surface familiarity, the writer-director teases out little gems of observation, with particular regard to how families behave during get-togethers. Embarrassing elders, drunken uncles, gossipy aunts, disturbingly flirtatious cousins - all observed by children alternately delighted and appalled. The gulf that separates adults’ behaviour and their hypocritical attitude towards children is perfectly encapsulated in a sequence where Ludovic’s daughter, Nelsa (Catherine Verlour) puts on a slideshow. It highlights all the drunken antics, sneaky affairs and bad behaviour the elders prefer their kids don’t see.
“Are you happy?” is the question characters persistently ask each other. It’s a telling reminder for those who over-romanticise the Seventies, that it was also an era of uncertainty, when ideals and long-cherished truths were withering away. More than revenge upon their self-serving spouses, Marthe and Ludovic’s tender, joyous affair comes across as rebellion against a social malaise. “Every day should be an adventure”, declares Ludovic. “Even just for one hour.”
Lanoux’s easygoing charm and Barrault’s radiant smile make them a beguiling screen couple, even though their final escape together - abandoning her son and his daughter - seems just as self-serving as anything their spouses did. Such devotion to self-happiness is almost childlike and given Tacchella closes the film on a little girl grinning in admiration maybe that’s the point. If so, that’s a pretty Seventies attitude right there. Cousin, Cousine was later remade (surprisingly well) as Cousins (1989) starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini.