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French Interiors

On Films

Possibly excepting the Germans, French film-makers have always been the ones most intent on using the medium impossibly—to address ideas as ideas, through an art that is otherwise designed. Hundreds of films around the world have carried intellectual weight and worth, but usually those films are dramas or comedies whose characters happen to be intellectually fraught. It is hard to imagine a country other than France producing many such films as Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels or Laurent Cantet's Time Out, in which, though the characters are far from puppets, they present matters of which they are examples. Of course there is a fine line here, not a blunt border: Hamlet is unmistakably individual, yet if he didn't represent themes that involve us, he wouldn't be interesting. Still, that fine line sometimes shades over, especially in French films, so that we are gripped more by the subject than by the characters.

Anne Fontaine has directed one of "those" French films, How I Killed My Father (New Yorker), which she wrote with Jacques Fieschi, author of Sade and A Heart in Winter. Fontaine's last film of note was Dry Cleaning, in which a transvestite man affects the lives of a modest small-town couple and modes of moral judgment are scrutinized. Her new film is also about an intruder affecting a couple, except that this time the intruder is the husband's long- absent father and the milieu is glittering.

Jean-Luc is a gerontologist, forty, with a lucrative practice. He lives in a princely Versailles chteau with his wife—no children, as she (he says) would run physical risk in childbearing. A letter comes to Jean-Luc telling him that his father, also a doctor, who deserted his family thirty years ago to practice in Africa, is dead. Then, on the night of a dazzling party at the chteau, the father, Maurice, suddenly appears. Quiet, unannounced.

This is only the first of the film's contradictions. (Possibly the letter was intended to give Maurice some of the aura of a revenant.) But the central point of the film is to follow the effect of a father's latter-day presence on all the arrangements of Jean-Luc's life—marriage, mistresses, brother whom he employs as a factotum (and who also does comedy at a small local club). What Fontaine and Fieschi are after as writers is, as the title announces, an investigation of delicacies and dangers in the fundamental Freudian relationship of father and son, the inherent bonds and resentments. These are all tinted by the fact that Maurice and Jean-Luc's wife become quite fond of each other—non-sexually, but still there are hints of regret that Maurice's age made this so.

The film as a whole is a set of attractive dissatisfactions. None of its implications is thoroughly plumbed, but they are all so confidently presented by Fontaine and her cast that they almost make us feel that our understanding is at fault. Charles Berling, who was the husband in Dry Cleaning, gives Jean- Luc a frigid composure that seems deliberate, perfected. Natacha Rgnier makes his wife a woman who sees herself as an upholstered accomplice to his manner, powerless but insouciant. The key performance is by Michel Bouquet as Maurice. Garlanded with the benefits of a long career, Bouquet infuses the man with that wonderful double strength: knowledge of life and of acting, one authenticating the other.

Fontaine's direction, especially her agreeably startling use of close-ups and her grace with a moving camera, creates sheerly cinematic appeal. She ends with one more enigma. The very last shot is an aerial view of an African village, the sort of place where Maurice has spent his life, and just before that shot we get a hint that the whole film might be a flashback. So she closes a film of psychological ambiguities with a formal ambiguity, together with a last bow to Maurice. Not many of us will want to spend the rest of our lives trying to plumb those ambiguities: still, the basic trauma, the stirrings made by a father's presence in a family where he has not existed, keeps resonating in some echo chamber.

Another father-son matter, though not a thematic one. Jesse Peretz, who made The Chteau (IFC), is the son of this magazine's editor-in-chief. That fact did not constrain me from praising the first film by Peretz fils, called First Love, Last Rites, and now I must praise not only his talent but his range. First Love steamed with infatuation and sex in Louisiana. The Chteau is high jinks in France.

Peretz apparently wanted to make a clash-of-cultures comedy about Americans in Europe but did not want the usual Yanks in Hawaiian shirts, laden with cameras. So he and his story collaborator, Thomas Bidegain, chose two bright American brothers, Graham and Rex—young men. (Youngness, rather than mere youth, is essential to the piece.) Not only that, Rex is black, adopted by Graham's family. Not only that, the brothers have suddenly inherited a French chteau—from a remote great-uncle.

The chteau is grand but grotty; the resident staff of four (plus a child) are either hostile or aloof; but the sheer adventure that they are in tickles the young men. Graham has been leading some sort of fringe life; Rex is a successful Internet businessman. They react to the inheritance in character, and their ebullience about what has happened to them keeps the picture frothing along. There are some plot developments de rigueur. The brothers decide to sell the chteau, which scares the staff who have been there all their lives, and the ways in which the servants discourage prospective buyers are reminders of Sid Caesar sketches. But what the film is mainly concerned with is the high spirits of Graham and the almost equally high spirits of Rex, though his are tempered because he cannot sense a heritage. Both of them are attracted to the young maid of the house, which leads not to rivalry but to comparisons in approach.

Paul Rudd, bespectacled, as Graham has a scene in which he attempts to kiss the maid but pulls himself back just in time, rebuking himself hilariously. Romany Malco, as Rex, also has a scene with the maid, in which he doesn't say—quite eloquently—a great deal more than he says. Didier Flamand endows the butler with an air of secrets to come. Sylvie Testud, a jolie laide, is wistful as the somewhat bewildered maid. Peretz says that he and Bidegain provided a story, then let the actors improvise the dialogue. Considering their actors, this was a sound decision, nicely in keeping with the picture's brio. The Americans especially, riffing along, keep the pleasantly fabricated story bouncing.

The resolution of the plot is a bit cryptic. But we understand that the film we have been watching is like the video of a free-floating party, except that it is smartly directed and breezily played. That's enough. That's plenty. Further: if I have the chance to review another Jesse Peretz film, I'm resolved not to mention his father. The son also rises.

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.