The extended family Sunday dinner is one of many traditions that have been waylaid by the ongoing global pandemic. With Easter weekend coming up, folks may be feeling especially nostalgic for those sort-of-awkward, sort-of pleasant rituals of simultaneous connection and alienation. Fortunately, Céline Devaux is here to undercut any such sentimentality with her acidic 2015 short, Le repas dominical (Sunday Dinner).

Narrated with alternating cynicism and intensity by the gravel-voiced Vincent Macaigne, Devaux’s film is a masterpiece of forced sincerity and simmering resentments, exploring the angst, regret and Freudian undercurrents that give this family’s weekly gatherings their unique dynamic. No one comes off particularly well, from the mother lamenting her lost youth, to the father drowning his anger and emotional unavailability in drink after drink, to the grandmother and her antiquated views of society. Devaux revels in their flaws, depicting them in oddly joyous musical dances that blend kaleidoscopic fantasy with Boschian horror (see the image at the top of this post for a good example).

It’s difficult to overstate just how well made Devaux’s film is. The paint-on-glass artwork is preposterously well made—textured, evocative, packed with perfectly executed visual metaphors. The script weaves from cynical humour to sincere sentimentality without undermining either, with an emotional complexity that rings true of real family dynamics. And more should be said about Macaigne’s magnificent voice-over, which is as nuanced and unpredictable as the animation.

Six years after it won Best International Short at GIRAF (as well as a whole lot of other awards at a whole lot of other festivals), Le repas dominical still feels as biting, strange, surprising and heartfelt as it did when it first appeared. It doesn’t exactly take the place of a real family dinner, but with its exaggerated emotions and boozy catharsis, it might just do the trick for now.

Devaux followed Le repas dominical with the mixed-live-and-animated short Gros Chagrin, and most recently appeared in the Oscar-nominated Genius Loci (which is available to watch in full online as of last week). It says a lot about the strength of her vision that her work is so instantly recognizable in that film (starting at about 4:10).

Le repas dominical

dir: Céline Devaux
syn: Sunday. At lunch, James observes his family. They ask him questions and don’t listen to his answers, they give advice but don’t follow it, they stroke him and slap him, but it’s ok, it is the Sunday lunch.

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