Hoping to charm those in search of an idyllic cinematic sojourn to the scenic French countryside, director Philippe de Broca's swan song (the auteur passed away in November 2004), "Vipere au poing" or Viper In The Fist traffics in the sort of children-overcoming-adversity-in-picturesque-surroundings tale that often plucks heartstrings and strikes that soft spot generally reserved for soft-focus long distance phone commercials. Viper In The Fist also apparently wants to pounce upon the ever-ravenous "Harry Potter" market as the back of the DVD case trumpets the film as "a delicious alternative to 'Harry Potter'!" That I don't know about, but what I do know is that Viper In The Fist is a diverting enough excursion down a well-traveled narrative road.
Adapted from Herve Bazin's novel of the same name by de Broca and Olga Vincent, the film opens in the Twenties as the young Jean Rezeau (Jules Sitruk) and his older brother Freddie (William Touil) are living a life of paradise at "La Belle Angerie," the family estate in Brittany. When the boys' grandmother suddenly dies, their parents return from Indochina and the boys are forced to return home and live once again with their parents and their other sibling, Marcel (Pierre Stevenin). Unsurprisingly, they soon learn that life with their domineering, authoritarian mother Paule (Catherine Frot) is a far cry from their loving, good-hearted grandmother. Their father, Jacques (Jacques Villeret), is content to let Paule run the show and let him collect his precious flies. Both Jean and Freddie endure bullying, punishments and unjust abuse until Jean rebels and enlists his brother to help wage a humorous yet vicious war against the oppressive matriarchal tyranny.
By balancing the bitter with the occasionally sweet, de Broca deftly weaves a narrative that balances a tricky tone throughout - the shift from idealized to hellish life is handled gracefully and the director is aided tremendously by his cast - Sitruk and Frot in particular acquit themselves well. While everything has a brilliant shine, there's still the matter of how predictable the plot ends up seeming - I read published reports that de Broca intended to continue this story in a proposed trilogy but tragically died before realizing that vision.
No new ground is broken with Viper In The Fist but as a subtitled Saturday night spent with the kids, you could do much worse.
Viper In The Fist is presented in a luminous 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that highlights Yves LaFaye's cinematography quite well. It's a clean, clear image that nevertheless has a vaguely digital appearance, indicating that perhaps it's a PAL-to-NTSC transfer that just happens to look better than most. No defects and no detectable flaws make this a very commendable image.
Offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo (in its native French), Viper In The Fist sounds as crisp and bright as it looks - there's no distortion and no drop-out and there's no problems hearing the score without losing the dialogue. Optional English subtitles are available and easy to read.
Aside from a menu available only in French, the only other extra included is the film's trailer.
Viper In The Fist is a handsomely mounted, ultimately predictable French film that nevertheless competently entertains with its lush visuals and terrific performances - while the limp narrative prevents it from being a must-see, it's easily recommended as a family-friendly rental.