The team spirit recalls that of the early French New Wave movies, but the similarities would seem to end there. In my exposure to their work (which is, I'll admit, minimal; none of Lvovsky's directorial efforts are available here, nor are many of Kahn's), I haven't detected a singular authorial style comparable to Godard's or Rivette's. The films owe as much to mainstream filmmaking as to art movies: they tend to center, unsurprisingly, on strong performances and straight-ahead storytelling. (Indeed, Belvaux's major work, The Trilogy, is a series of three genre exercises featuring the same characters.) Their formal confidence emerges in subtler ways—consistently thoughtful compositions, unpredictable leaps forward in narrative time, casual frankness about working life and sex.
A Better Life displays all of these virtues and tells a solid story to boot. It's the sort of unblemished good movie that would approach greatness if not for its inherent modesty. Yann, the hero played by Canet, is a relatable everyman, a former foster child working as a short-order cook and aspiring to move up in society. He meets the right woman—a gorgeous single mom (Leila Bekhti, of A Prophet) who's also had her share of trouble—and decides that she's the one with whom he can take on the world. The first 20 minutes relates their low-budget, illusion-free courtship, and this passage would make a fine little film in its own right—a tale of compromised happiness that recalls some of Raymond Carver's short fiction (or Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, a high-water mark for this type of realist French cinema). The remainder of Better Life concerns the couple's losing battle with adult life. They try to open a bed and breakfast, but find themselves drowning in debts before they can even open the place. Eventually, the mother leaves for Canada because she's offered a decent-paying job that could help ease the financial burden.
What fascinates me about Kahn's film is how it always seems to be catching up with its story, rather than parceling it out from above. Implicit in this strategy is the assertion that real life is just as compelling as movies—a position that would seem to run counter to expectations of both escapism and high art. This might explain why Kahn (or, for that matter, Jacquot, who's more psychological in his approach but no less self-effacing in his style) remains so little-known here. You can't categorize life into a marketable genre.