Dir: Melvin van Peebles. France. 2000. 102 mins.
Prod co: Euripide Productions. Int'l Sales: Films Distribution (00 33 1 53 10 33 99). Exec prods: Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Frederic Sichler, Van Peebles. Prod: Jean-Pierre Saire. Scr: Van Peebles, based on his own novel. DoP: Philippe Pavans de Ceccaty. Prod des: Karim Nezzar-Kebaili. Ed: Catherine D'Hoir. Music: Van Peebles. Main cast: Meiji U Tum'Si, Andrea Ferreol, Jacques Boudet, Herman Van Veen, Claude Perron.
Shot in French and on video, A Belly Full sounds on paper like a realistic piece of social satire about a white family's exploitation of the naive young African woman they take under their wing. It actually plays much of the time as a broad farce pitched at an irritatingly overwrought level which makes it a difficult commercial prospect.
Though the name of Van Peebles, the veteran director of Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, will attract initial curiosity, the film is, by the nature of its setting and treatment, unlikely to exercise any appeal in the mainstream African-American market, or indeed anywhere much outside its home turf. However it might expect a scattering of small screen sales and interest from black film festivals is guaranteed.
Set in 1967 - "almost yesterday" as the opening caption suggests - the story begins as a middle-aged couple (Ferreol and Boudet) visit an orphanage in search of a girl to replace their absent daughter as a helping hand in their small bistro, Le Ventre Plein. Told that the orphans are all "of colonial ancestry", they immediately insist that colour is only skin deep and select a woman named Diamantine (U Tum'Si) to welcome into their home.
In fact Diamantine's race is of key significance to the couple. Their daughter, Blanchette (Perron), is not, as they pretend, away caring for a sick aunt but waiting out an illegitimate pregnancy locked in the attic. She has declined to name the father, but they are convinced he is black. Forcing the demure and trusting Diamantine to wear provocative clothes that will establish her as promiscuous around town, they persuade her to pretend to fall pregnant. They can then adopt their own grandchild as an apparent act of philanthropy, without bringing social stigma on themselves.
This fraught situation is aggravated by the arrival of Roger (Van Veen), an old business associate of the father's who has shouldered the blame and a prison rap for one of the two men's dodgy business ventures. He has also had a brief fling with the mother who is now itching to rekindle the flame (against his dogged resistance). Meanwhile Blanchette emerges from the attic, her full belly swelling gently in pace with Diamantine's cushion-stuffed one, to have her say.
Starkly lit and acted, the film is shot in garish colours overlaid at times with surreal superimposed imagery. Its shifts of tone are often uneasy: Ferreol and Boudet's characters, grotesque and farcical in their smug hypocrisy, are drawn with broad brushstrokes, while other performances are more mutedly naturalistic. Contemporary viewers will find Diamantine a frustratingly submissive and placid figure whose own point of view is rarely apparent, although at the end of the film she's allowed a too-brief moment of self-assertion.