Anticipation for Sian Heder’s CODA has been building over the past seven months since its acclaimed premiere at Sundance Film Festival. CODA broke festival records when Apple paid $25 million for the tender coming-of-age story about a hearing teenager, her Deaf family, and her dilemma of whether to pursue music school or stay behind to support her family’s business. What audiences may not realize is that the drama is an English-language remake of Éric Lartigau’s La Famille Bélier, which gathered six nominations at the 40th César Awards. Although there are many similarities between the two films, Heder’s version makes several striking changes to the story, which we’ve rounded up below.
Where La Famille Bélier follows a family of dairy farmers in rural France, CODA transports the action to Massachusetts and centers around a fishing business. The different cultures and lines of work alter the specifics, but both films involve working-class families dealing with lack of resources and deaf access.
La Famille Bélier opens with 16-year-old Paula (Louane Emera) in a barn, tending to a cow giving birth in the dark of night. Paula works on her family’s dairy farm in rural France, and her brother and parents culturally Deaf, French Sign Language (LSF) users. Paula interprets for her family on a daily basis, assisting with orders and selling cheese at the market. Paula’s best friend is Mathilde (Roxane Duran), who ends up dating Paula’s brother, Quentin (Luca Gelberg); the two share a rather unfortunate sexual encounter that results in anaphylactic shock due to a latex allergy.
Early on in the film, Paula develops a crush on Gabriel (Ilian Bergala) and signs up for the same choir group as him. Mr. Thomasson (Éric Elmosnino), her music teacher, soon discovers her gift for singing, encouraging her to audition for a prestigious music college in Paris. Paula’s father decides to run for mayor, relying on Paula to interpret for him at meetings and interviews.
CODA begins on open waters, the sound of Ruby’s voice gliding over the waves as she works away on her family’s fishing boat. Ruby is the only hearing member of the Rossi family, and her parents and older brother are Deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) users. Like Paula, Ruby interprets for her family and assists with her family’s business while joining the school choir to spend time with her love interest. After hearing her singing voice, Mr V (Eugenio Derbez) persuades Ruby to audition for music college, similarly offering private tutoring lessons like those of Mr. Thomasson in La Famille Bélier.
Ruby’s family struggles with the declining fishing climate, exacerbated by restrictive fees. In a moment of anger, Ruby’s father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), announces the creation of his own company to sell their fish. Ruby is relied upon to spread the word and interpret interviews and conversations, much like Paula does for her father’s campaign.
The most noticeable character change between the two movies is the protagonist’s brother. In CODA, Leo (Daniel Durant) is older than Ruby and works as a fisherman, voicing his independence and protectiveness around his family’s livelihood throughout the film. He grows frustrated with his parents’ focus on Ruby, which finally leads to a confrontation with her. Quentin, the brother in La Famille Bélier, is younger than his sister and plays a more minor role.
The Concert Scene
A noteworthy scene in CODA involves Ruby performing in a school concert, where a brief change in soundscape brings the audience into the perspective of Ruby’s family by going silent while she sings onstage. The same thing happens in La Famille Bélier, and Paula and Ruby’s respective parents look around and witness the audience’s positive reception to their daughter’s singing.
The most significant difference between the two films involves the cast. The parents in La Famille Bélier are played by hearing actors, and to those in the know, it is apparent through their often exaggerated or inconsistent signing that they are not deaf nor fluent LSF users. The filmmaker admits he never considered casting deaf actors instead: “I didn’t want to make a documentary about the deaf. I wanted to tell the story of an adolescent girl whose experience was out of the ordinary, because she was living with deaf parents and a deaf younger brother.” Quentin is played by a deaf actor.
In CODA, there are three leading Deaf actors who are all sign language users. Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are fluent in ASL, and their performances breathe life into a recycled drama. Deaf and disabled actors have often had the auditioning door shut to them, while non-disabled actors go on to critical and commercial acclaim for playing disabled characters—Matlin nearly walked away from the project at the prospect of Kotsur’s role going to a hearing actor. CODA’s championing of Deaf talent is integral to its success.
CODA is being shown with open captions—meaning captions will be shown onscreen—for its theatrical release, ensuring that the film is accessible to those who need captions to enjoy films without depending on cinemas to schedule captioned showings themselves. It’s also available on AppleTV Plus with closed captions to those who have a subscription.
I viewed La Famille Bélier on UK Amazon Prime, and although the film had English subtitles for the French dialogue and LSF, it didn’t have SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). SDH elements are crucial for deaf audience members as they convey non-dialogue sounds such as music and contextual noises, such as a phone ringing and a door slamming. The subtitles that were available were of poor quality, and it was difficult to follow the dialogue, especially with two languages being used simultaneously in most scenes: Paula speaks as she signs, and often there were only subtitles for her dialogue, and not her family’s signing, which meant audiences have to decipher what her parents and brother are saying based on her responses. Subtitles for LSF were only present when Paula isn’t around or when her family’s dialogue is considered important for context. This lack of access is exclusionary, and it ultimately points to the conclusion that deaf audiences weren’t thought of in the release of this film.