A man's death brings to the surface unresolved trauma for his brother in thesp Eric Caravaca's respectable, though rarely moving, helming debut "The Passenger." Best known for his role in Patrice Chereau's "His Son," Caravaca plays with some of the same themes, though the focus here is on the need to digest the past before moving on to the future.

A man’s death brings to the surface unresolved trauma for his brother in thesp Eric Caravaca’s respectable, though rarely moving, helming debut “The Passenger.” Best known for his role in Patrice Chereau’s “His Son,” Caravaca plays with some of the same themes, though the focus here is on the need to digest the past before moving on to the future. Sketchy screenplay doesn’t fully carry the characters’ pain across the screen, though confident lensing and a superb cast do their best. Modest success at smaller fests could be in the cards.

The joy of a new baby is cut short when Thomas (Caravaca) gets a call to identify his brother Richard’s body in Marseilles. The two hadn’t been in touch for some time, and it’s obvious that some troubling issue was keeping them apart before Richard’s suicide.

Despite suggestions that he arrange for the funeral ASAP, Thomas leaves the body with the morticians and travels along the coast to the rarely used family vacation home. Among his brother’s belongings was a photo from happier days, with Richard and a woman next to a hotel by the beach.

Without explaining who he is, Thomas checks in to the hotel and discovers that the woman, Jeanne (Julie Depardieu), owns the place and was Richard’s g.f. She runs the hotel with the assistance of her lonely orphaned godson Lucas (Vincent Rottiers) and uncle Joseph (Maurice Benichou).

A mournful air has settled on the place, and not just because off-season beach resorts are always depressing. Richard left without an explanation, and both Jeanne and Lucas, for whom Richard was a father figure, are anxiously awaiting word. Thomas wins their confidence, but their melancholic little world explodes when Lucas sees Thomas emptying the house he knew belonged to Richard and guesses there’s a lot more he hasn’t been told.

The dead weight of the past sits heavily on “The Passenger” — an unofficial and not wholly accurate translation of the French title, whose multiple meanings have no equivalent. Thomas knows he can’t return to his wife and baby until he’s resolved his pain, stemming from an incident that occurred years earlier, while none of the hotel residents can move forward until they know whether they’re waiting in vain. Even Joseph seems to live in a time capsule, regaling an eager Lucas with stories of the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight as if it were yesterday.

Depardieu’s inner fragility works well here, but Jeanne’s pain is evoked more through nuance and unspoken anguish than anything in the screenplay.

Saddest character is Lucas, an overprotected, hearing-impaired orphan whose sublimated issues of abandonment leave a tortured, desperately vulnerable soul. Rottiers, so moving in Christophe Ruggia’s “The Devils,” beautifully captures the disturbed youth’s yearning for stability.

Nathalie Richard has a practically throw-away role as a childhood friend of Thomas and Richard who’s still stuck in the same town.

One of the few cases where a debut film actually could have been a little longer, pic features fine lensing by Celine Bozon (“Exiles”), with an especially pronounced, felicitous use of color.

Gregoire Hetzel’s score, full of nervous violins and deeply plucked cellos, emphasizes the inner turmoil at the center of the melancholy mental landscape.

The Passenger

Production

A Diaphana Films, Arte France production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Michel Saint-Jean. Directed by Eric Caravaca. Screenplay by Caravaca, Arnaud Cathrine with the collaboration of Laurent Perreau, based on the novel "La route de Midland" by Cathrine. Camera (color),

Crew

Celine Bozon; editor, Simon Jacquet; music, Gregoire Hetzel; production designers, Valerie Saradjian, Patrick Durand; costume designer, Edwige Morel D'Arleux; sound (Dolby SR/SRD), Francois Maurel; sound editor, Benoit Hillebrant. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Intl. Critics' Week), Sept. 5, 2005. Running time: 79 MIN.

Cast

With: Julie Depardieu, Eric Caravaca, Vincent Rottiers, Maurice Benichou, Nathalie Richard, Maurice Garrel, Remi Martin.
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