Reviews Published 10 November 2015

Le moral des ménages (Fight or Flight)

French Institute Alliance Française ⋄ 4th - 5th November 2015

Middle class backlash.

Molly Grogan


A mid-life crisis usually hits around 40 if at all, but Manuel, the anti-hero of Eric Reinhardt’s novel Le moral des ménages, is in a full-blown meltdown by about the age of ten. The problem isn’t himself; it’s his father, an obsequious salesman consistently bettered by his scheming colleagues, and his mother, who puts up with him though she is forced to make ends meet by serving the same zucchini casserole week after week. At a tender age, Manuel already knows he will do everything in his power not to be like them but he also realizes the difficulty of the task, so he finds an even grander purpose in life: to castigate, mock and abhor the very structures that beat his parents down, namely their middle-class existence.

The middle class may well be the backbone of French society and its work-to-live ethic (enjoying eight weeks of annual paid vacation and mountains of government subsidies: everything from parental leave to housing benefits to free child care and discounts on travel and culture), but it doesn’t prevent Reinhardt from taking a radically more pessimistic view of France’s average family. In Manuel’s eyes at least, they are stingy, narrow-minded, sacrificially pragmatic penny-pinchers who are obsessed with saving money for a rainy day and who are consequently letting life pass them by. Worse (in a twist of logic carried over from American economics), their frugality is not only unnecessary but selfish and even unpatriotic as it is to be blamed for the stagnant French economy and high unemployment.

That sounds like a pretty dogmatic program but in Cléau’s adaptation of Reinhardt’s novel, which made its US premiere at FIAF as “Fight or Flight,” with French film star Mathieu Amalric, Manuel’s dilemma makes for a show that is as much a zinging commentary on the middle class as it is a sexy and facetious look at middle-age psychology.

The show’s success in France, and here again, lies with the excellent pair on stage. Though only 50, Amalric is an omnipresent personality in French cinema, with over 80 film credits in his 30-year long career. He lends the adult Manuel – whose own career as a bombastic rocker has gone nowhere –  his brawny charm and celebrity-quality scorn for French homemakers, as well as a predatory energy familiar from roles such as Dominic Greene, the arch-villain of Quantum of Solace. His radiant co-star, Anne-Laure Tondu, blends seamlessly into the mostly silent roles of Manuel’s mother, wife, lovers and daughter, offering a slightly nutty, then breathlessly angry female counterpart to the alpha-male’s ego.

More pleasure is to be found unraveling Cléau’s clever shorthand for Reinhardt’s story (the performance runs a crisp one hour). She paints a cubist portrait of Manuel, his parents and their failed dreams, giving Amalric a mike to deliver his diatribes as if he were performing in one of Manuel’s concerts, and letting Tondu lend impressionistic touches of Manuel’s love life. Racks of clothes and shoes stand against the back wall of the stage, a nod to the kind of wild consumption and elegance Manuel dreams of and which Tondu gets to dive into frequently to dress her characters and Manuel’s fantasies.  As Manuel’s overwhelmed, wide-eyed mother, Tondu also manipulates a remote-controlled helicopter, tying in both Manuel’s father’s adventurous past in the military and Manuel the boy’s make-believe.  The US premiere ran, however, sans a series of projections of pen and ink drawings by the French comic book author, Blutch, and the reason for the change was unclear, although audiences at FIAF appreciated the performance all the same.

The American production is translated as “Fight or Flight.” which captures Manuel’s desperation when faced with the prospect of following his parents’ sad destiny, but loses the nuances of the French title, which is also used by economists to designate “consumer confidence.” Literally, the expression means how households (ménages) are feeling (moral), a handy phrase here in that it also opens the door to the other issues Reinhardt looks at obliquely: mid-life/identity crises, parent-child relations, adolescent development and psychology. As Manuel’s exasperated daughter is only too happy to remind him, this angry idealist is just a pauvre type, a zero whose anger would have ruined her own life  if it weren’t for the solid example of her prudent and thrifty and terribly middle-class grandparents – the very values he has been trying to denounce and run from at the same time. So much for changing the world.

In our current election season, there’s a lot of talk again about income inequality in the US, between the 1% and everyone else. Who is the middle class now that only the incomes of the wealthy are growing and everyone else is falling behind? In that context, Le moral des ménages at first looks rather archaic: its emphasis on stay-at-home moms in the kitchen taking orders from dead-beat dads looks rather more like the 1950s than today. But that dissonance aside, it succeeds at offering a timely reminder that while we in the US might forget it, in other parts of the world, the middle class is a tangible and identifiable reality, with a voice and issues that matter to politicians. After all, it’s even the amusing and thoughtful subject of this mordant play that cares to ask how we all are feeling in the “middle.”

Molly Grogan

Molly Grogan covered French and international theater for 20 years in Paris. She has written on theater for The Village Voice and American Theater and managed an Off-Broadway theater company. She is a translator of fiction and non-fiction with a Ph.D. in Francophone postcolonial literature and a Masters in social linguistics.

Le moral des ménages (Fight or Flight) Show Info

Directed by Stéphanie Cléau

Written by Based on the novel by Eric Reinhardt

Cast includes Mathieu Amalric, Anne-Laure Tondu

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 60 minutes


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