Copacabana, written and directed by Marc Fitoussi, is a fresh, completely absorbing little film about people – or rather, one person – you feel you might have known. Isabelle Huppert steps away from the tortured characters she often plays to portray Babou, a free-spirited, unemployed single mother (no father is ever mentioned) living in the North of France with her straitlaced daughter, Esméralda (played by Lolita Chammah, Huppert’s real-life daughter), who one day announces that she is going to marry her accountant boyfriend, Justin (Joachim Lombard). Babou is dismayed, because she thinks Justin is far “too serious,” but she is even more dismayed when Esméralda tells her that she is not welcome at the wedding. Esméralda thinks Babou will embarrass her in front of Justin’s family and has told them she is in Brazil (where Babou has always longed to go but has never visited) and won’t be back in time for the wedding.
The character of the “kooky” Babou could have been very grating, but Fitoussi has managed to avoid heartwarming cliches, showing Babou’s annoying, selfish, wrongheaded and, yes, embarrassing sides as well as her winning charms. And Huppert plays it perfectly in every scene, expressing the rejected mother’s hurt feelings with powerful understatement, as when she calmly says to her daughter after the announcement about the marriage, “You no longer have the right to call me maman,” as she clears away their unfinished dinner.
Babou is not one to take such adversity lying down, however, so she decides to get a job to earn some money and respectability. Since she has no particular experience, the only job she can find in the distressed north is a nightmarish position as a tout for a new time-share apartment building in the Belgian seaside “resort” of Ostend. Selling a vacation apartment in the streets of Belgium in the freezing wintertime is no picnic, but Babou surprises everyone except herself by excelling at it – until her nonconformist ways irreparably alienate her from her employers.
The great thing about Babou is that she is unapologetically and fearlessly herself, and you’ll certainly find yourself rooting for her. I have only one small complaint about this movie: the ending offers a too-neat wrap-up that is slightly off-kilter with the realism of the rest of the film. Otherwise Copacabana is a great little movie.Favorite