Cedric Kahn’s Une Vie Meilleure (A Better Life) opens with Yann (played by the excellent Guillaume Canet) attending a disastrous job interview; he meets, and subsequently falls madly in love, with Nadia (Leïla Bekhti), a stunningly attractive young mother. The film follows this fairytale romance, with Yann quickly becoming a family man and taking on responsibility for Nadia’s son Slimane. On impulse, they buy a derelict cabin and begin the renovations required to turn it into a restaurant with the dream of creating a future together. However, with mounting loans and debts, the passionate romance begins to falter and Nadia travels to Toronto on the promise of employment, leaving Slimane in Yann’s care.
The sudden change of direction in Kahn’s film is very effective and the audience are caught completely off-guard as instead of the romance, the film turns down a different track, focusing instead on Yann, who is mired in debt and responsibilities and forced to become a parent to Slimane. As the financial strains and pressures of parenthood build, Yann finds Nadia can no longer be contacted or traced, forcing him to turn to crime in order to pay for the flights to Toronto to track her down himself. The sudden shift from romance to social drama mirrors the gear change in Yann and Nadia’s relationship when the comfortable life and relationship they have fractures under financial insecurity.
Although it might seem unlikely that Nadia would decide to leave Slimane with Yann for several months, the focus on the burgeoning relationship between the latter two provides a breath of fresh air. The scenes between Slimane and his surrogate father seem extremely natural: moments of happiness and laughter contrasted with the tension and bitterness that characterise the reality and desperation of their situation. Kahn draws parallels between the two in scenes that mirror and reverse each of their roles, such as Yann lecturing Slimane on morality then turning to crime himself in the most desperate of circumstances. This relationship between adult and child is at the heart of Une Vie Meilleure. The two characters grow together as a family facing the obstacles put in front of them that are the result of poor decisions, social politics and, to some extent, fate.
The film’s title “a better life” might initially, for Yann, take the form of his life with Nadia and her son; yet in seeking to better themselves, they become caught up in debt with the result that both lovers and also mother and son are separated. Towards the conclusion of the film, Yann and Slimane, and also the audience find Nadia and discover that the promise of a better life for her in Toronto was not all it appeared to be. The film ends on a somewhat positive note however — with a reunited family and the hope that they will finally achieve the happiness they seek.
Kahn’s gritty romance is set against the backdrop of the global recession, a background in which the boundaries between love and crime, and happiness and loneliness are influenced by escalating debt and unemployment. Whilst the focus of Une Vie Meilleure is on the people living on the margins, trapped in debt and struggling desperately to create a future for themselves, the series of events and their exertions are increasingly relevant to a broader proportion of contemporary society.