Being a cinema buff, especially where French films are concerned, I admire most of all their simplicity and realism in their portrayal of daily life without recourse to the Hollywood formulae of incredulity to boost box-office returns.
In the latest hits of this summer, Retour Chez Ma Mère, Stephanie, played by Alexandra Lamy, is the main character. An elegant 40 year-old architect has to put up with living in a house where the furniture dates from the 1970s, the jar of instant coffee is almost as old and the garage is full of junk. The breakdown of a relationship and unemployment mean that she has to return to live with her mother. At a time of year when cinemas are usually empty, more than two million people have gone to see a comedy that has struck a chord in a society in crisis.
With an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent and marital breakdown escalating, the plot of the film is all too familiar to the French. A recent study found that 7 per cent of those aged 30-49 had returned to live with their parents after having left home a decade or more earlier. About a third of this group go back after separating from their partners, and a quarter after losing their jobs. Serge Guèrin, a sociologist, hailed the trend as an indirect benefit of France’s economic crisis: ‘At the end of the day, the generations understand each other better,’ he said.
However, Eric Lavaine, the film’s director, described the emergence of a ‘boomerang generation’ – those who return to live with their parents – as a symptom of social disarray. He said that adults felt failures when they were forced to ‘squat mum and dad’s home’ and often ‘faced hostility from their brothers and sisters… We love our parents, but it would be a nightmare to live with them 24 hours a day,’ he said.
In his film, Stephanie can barely contain her exasperation as she tries to explain the Internet to her mother, played by Josiane Balasko, who thinks that Gmail is an illness and that .com is written ‘dotcomme’. The daughter is forced to listen to old variety songs, to state when she will be home at night, to sleep in a bed with her mother’s flea-ridden cat. Whenever she turns the heating down, her mother turns it up again. Her sister, played by Mathilde Seigner, is furious with her for returning to her mother’s house. ‘The film should have been called “Family, Family, I Hate You!” or “Family Crisis.”’ Mr Lavaine said.
Michel Billé, a sociologist, said that parents were often happy to take their adult children back. ‘It helps them construct a positive image of themselves.’ But he added, ‘You don’t have the same rhythm at 40 as you did at 60 or the same relationship to time, money or new technology. These differences can give rise to marvellous moments of exchange or violent conflict. If the brothers and sisters get involved and become jealous, the cohabitation can become hell.’
France is by no means the only European country that has experienced a rise in the number of people living with their parents since the economic crisis struck. In Spain and Italy, however, most never left home in the first place. In France many have established families of their own and have been obliged to return. One reason is a combination of long-tern unemployment and relationship instability, with about 250,000 cohabiting or married couples separating every year.
It all goes to prove that the world is going topsy-turvy in every sense of the word. We enjoy watching the comic side of things, but the reality of the situation is truly disturbing. Hallelujah!