Vacations are meant to be an enjoyable time of rest, relaxation, and quality time with one’s family. Of course, when you get to a certain age, odds are that you will find yourself having gone through your fair share of less-than-stellar vacation experiences. Movies love to play around with the comedy and tense family dynamics of these situations (National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise comes to mind). From writer and director Stevan Lee Mraovitch, the French film Vacances á Tout Prix (Holidays at All Cost) takes the “botched vacation” formula and adds in a few thoughtful flourishes to study the characters of the narrative with a heartfelt focus.
Frederic (Oumar Diaw) is a family man living in Paris who wants to provide his wife, Fanny (Donia Eden), and young son, Max (Swann Nguma-Torre), with a lovely getaway in the South of France. Many times in recent years, Frederic had sacrificed the family vacation so that he could work his job and save more money, a vicious cycle that continued to negatively impact his personal happiness and relationship with his family. As it tends to go, an issue from his workplace looks to once again prevent him from making the trip. There are too many financial variables working against him. However, Frederic realizes that he has an old friend, Jean-Luc (Benjamin Garnier), who owns a luxury resort. They strike a secret deal: If Frederic commits to working a few hours each day doing odd jobs around the resort, the expenses of their stay will be paid. This sounds fair enough. Of course, Jean-Luc has ulterior motives, and Frederic is put through a hellish journey similar to what Clark Griswold has been known to experience.
Before the misadventures really get rolling, there is a glimpse into the potential bliss and contentment that could be enjoyed by the family trio of Frederic, Fanny, and Max. There is genuine delight and a lovely chemistry amongst the actors as they blend into the roles of their characters. In particular, the romance between Frederic and Fanny is sold well by the performances of Oumar Diaw and Donia Eden, respectively. Yet, it is not long before Jean-Luc’s sabotage efforts throw a wrench into things. Even over the course of a short montage to set up the sparks between Frederic and Fanny, a connection to their relationship is developed from the perspective of the viewer. As Jean-Luc comes into the picture and does everything he can to not only interrupt this family’s vacation, but also to win the heart of Fanny, the frustration with this character’s nasty, selfish antics increased. The whole time, the audience is left waiting for that spark between Frederic and Fanny to come back and gets pretty sick of this Jean-Luc guy’s shenanigans. How dare he betray his friend in such a way! Indeed, I was thoroughly invested in the emotional cornerstone of the story — Frederic’s relationship with his family, and his journey for self-respect. Many of his misfortunes could have been avoided if he found the courage to stand up for himself and demand to be treated with simple human decency. Still, this film does not necessarily shame the character of Frederic for being meek and passive, rather it ultimately encourages him to “know his worth,” which is a positive message I can definitely get behind.
Simply put, Holidays at All Cost is also a really funny film. While wanting Frederic to eventually find prosperity, the messes (sometimes literally) that he finds himself in will have you laughing out loud on multiple occasions. Even while despising the character of Jean-Luc for his dishonesty, I must admit that I respect his dedication to the craftmanship of elaborate pranks. He’s a character that you love to hate, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly as amusing without his mean-spirited gags and high jinks. A lot of Frederic’s struggle is played for laughs, and laughs they got. The array of physical humor and situational comedy compete against each other throughout the runtime in a darkly comedic game constructed by Jean-Luc, with Frederic caught in the middle.
Another element of this film to fall in love with is the dialogue, clicking on all fronts of writing, directing, and acting. Many scenes feature long, unbroken takes with gripping, continually evolving discussions between characters. It almost feels like we are watching the characters and actors react to the shifts in gravity in the narrative in real time. In certain scenes, the camera is set up in a fairly stationary position, sitting back and watching the actors deliver their lines. In other scenes, the camera is slowly pushing in on the talent as the conversation develops. The screen presence of the actors in these scenes is definitely impressive, as they memorized wordy paragraphs of dialogue and delivered them with an awareness of the emotional weight of that particular moment in the narrative.
While there are a handful of shots in the film that seem haphazardly framed and lit, they are easy enough to forgive when you take into account the rest of the cinematography on-location in the South of France. The lush, rolling hills are easy on the eyes. In other shots, the camera’s kinetic energy bounces over the waves on boats cruising through the water. The reflection of the sky on the water produces a deep, rich blue that has a certain soothing effect to it. I wouldn’t mind making a trip to the South of France myself after seeing this display in Holidays at All Cost.
Sure, we have seen the basic components of this story many times before: a nice family man is just trying to have a good time, and then something goes horribly wrong. But, all it takes is a few twists on these fundamentals to produce something memorable. That’s what we have with Stevan Lee Mraovitch’s Holidays at All Cost — a hilarious vacation dramedy that has relatable characters, a tender heart, and satisfying emotional resonance.
Screening during the 2021 Dances With Films Festival.
World premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater on September 7th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Holidays At All Cost Facebook page.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.