“Coming to Terms with the Dead” is a haunting three-part puzzle about the unspoken legacy shared by four grown siblings. Helmed with stylistic assurance by 34-year-old co-scripter Pascale Ferran, pic’s artful, three-pronged approach is a bit too long. But fest auds and arthouse denizens are likely to be forgiving, as cunningly layered loose threads gradually yield a satisfying tapestry.
Ferran collaborated with Arnaud Desplechin on “La Sentinelle,” and her concerns here mine similar territory: death, memory and responsibility as they rattle in the human psyche.
A Brittany beach in August serves as launch pad for interlocking flashbacks. The words “A Triptych” appear onscreen, followed by a prologue in which an engagingly precocious 8-year-old boy agrees to guard a magnificent sand castle for the 40-ish man who built it. The camera settles on various objects washed up on the shore, then examines three different wristwatches as their hands approach noon.
Using a strategy not unlike that of Fons Rademakers'”The Assault,” bits and pieces of a traumatic childhood event are doled out until the narrative coalesces. But only the viewer — not the protagonists — ever gets the full picture.
“Part I — Jumbo” is a lyrical and trenchant look at the goings-on in a Brittany port from the p.o.v. of an obstinate and imaginative youngster who has given himself the code name “Jumbo.” Jumbo comments on his caring but ineffectual parents while trying to make sense of the death of an admired playmate. Guillaume Charras is a real find in the role. Jumbo is a sort of updated Greek chorus to the self-contained segments that follow.
In “Part II — Francois,” 32-year-old Francois (Charles Berling), a specialist in insect classification, harbors ancient resentments toward Vincent (Didier Sandre), who’s building an exquisitely elaborate sand castle, and is buffeted by his discomfort, which alternates with pleasant thoughts of an attractive journalist who recently came to interview him. Through sharp editing, pic captures the ways in which minds wander, settle on a thought, then wander anew.
In “Part III — Zaza,” Zaza (Catherine Ferran), a nurse burnt out by job stress, lolls in the sunshine and thinks back to her childhood, to the drawbacks of being perceived as a tower of strength and emotional stability and to a dinner date with a former suitor 20 years after the fact. Seg features pleasing special effects of energy radiating through actress’s body as she repeats yoga-inflected relaxation exercises in a b&w nether world.
Overall, pic has a literary feel for detail while exploiting snippets of sound and arresting visual flourishes to replicate shifting states of consciousness and concentration. Script explores the residue of emotional discomfort with sometimes startling imagery (a satchel hurtling through space, a dog snared in a churning escalator).
Thesps are fine throughout. Conclusion is a bit long in coming, but extended stretches of narrative mastery announce a filmmaker to watch.