“A Belly Full” (“Le Conte du Ventre Plein”) is an innocuous, flyweight comedy whose sole reason for snagging attention is the fact this is the latest effort from the elusive Melvin Van Peebles.
“A Belly Full” takes place in a provincial French town in 1967. Loretta and Henri, a strange couple who run the local bistro (Andrea Ferreol and Jacques Boudet), arrive at an orphanage seeking to hire a young girl as a waitress; the previous waitress was their daughter, who supposedly went off to care for a sick aunt. The orphanage director is clearly surprised by this request, especially since her institution cares for girls of “colonial ancestry” (i.e., African and Asian children) and the village is virtually all-white.
The bistro owners are insistent and, with a hefty under-the-table payment, secure the services of Diamantine (Meiji U Tum’si), a pleasant if less-than-savvy black lass. Diamantine finds herself the object of the couple’s overflowing affection and royal treatment, and soon begins to feel like part of the family. The bonding between the couple and the orphan girl is so strong that Diamantine happily agrees to play along with the couple’s odd request that she pad her midsection with a pillow and pretend to be pregnant. The masquerade continues until the couple’s daughter returns home with an explanation for this deception.
The secret of “A Belly Full” is telegraphed almost immediately from the start and it requires more than a little patience to get through the farce before the obvious surprise is revealed. Complicating the process is Van Peebles’ erratic style, with a heavy emphasis on grotesque tilted angle close-ups, cutesy dissolves, abrupt editing and a weird jazz score which never mirrors the on-screen action. One gets the feeling the film was shot and assembled in a hurry.
To its advantage, though, “A Belly Full” offers a wonderfully hammy cast who clearly enjoy themselves, especially Andrea Ferreol as the swooping, unsubtle matriarch who masterminds the silly pregnancy ploy. The highlight here is a bizarre sequence when Loretta, attempting to cut a wild image of her new waitress, cajoles the confused Diamantine to lift her hemline and lower her neckline to give the impression of a loose girl — a truly hilarious notion, since Diamantine’s genial demeanor is clearly antithetical to the image of a sartorial femme fatale.
The film also presents a charming and totally unapologetic interracial romance between Diamantine and a local singer (French pop heartthrob Frank Delhaye, who is truly amusing as a talentless performer). This is worth noting only because it seems the possibility of presenting an on-screen interracial love story without sociological hang-ups only exists in occasional indie films like this and is still an obstacle in Hollywood productions.
Describing “A Belly Full” as breezy is perhaps the best way to categorize the film. For like a breeze, the film offers a cool and brief distraction which is quickly forgotten when the whoosh is over.