A low-key but effectively unsettling variation on Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," Franco-Belgian psychodrama "For a Son" reps a worthy debut for writer-director Alix de Maistre.

A low-key but effectively unsettling variation on Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” Franco-Belgian psychodrama “For a Son” reps a worthy debut for writer-director Alix de Maistre. Inspired by true events and filmed with a deadpan intensity that allows buried emotions to slowly bubble to the surface, the tale of a deranged 20-year-old who passes himself off as a divorced couple’s long-missing son is marked by a stark, suspenseful atmosphere, with gripping perfs from stars Miou-Miou and Olivier Gourmet. Small-budgeter should reap similar benefits in France, though fests and arthouse distribs may hark to the disturbing subject matter.

Though the kidnapping-and-fraud story has some similarities to the Eastwood film, the focus here is less on big-city corruption than on the family disequilibrium provoked by the event. In that sense, it’s closer to Gallic helmer Safy Nebbou’s recent “Mark of an Angel” in its study of the trauma caused by the reappearance of a child who was thought to be long gone.

Script was inspired by French professional charlatan Frederic Bourdin, nicknamed “Le Cameleon,” who made a name for himself impersonating “found” missing children in both the U.S. and France. Bourdin’s story was recently detailed in a New Yorker article.

Played to troubling effect by newcomer Kevin Lelannier, Matteo is revealed in the pic’s opening as a psychotic, self-flagellating loner who’s obsessed by the kidnapping of a child named Tony that took place 10 years prior. Matteo sets his sights on Tony’s emotionally damaged, recently divorced mother, Catherine (Miou-Miou), and the detective, Omer (Gourmet), who failed to locate her son but never gave up hope.

When Matteo contacts Omer out of the blue, the latter mistakenly allows Matteo to reunite with his alleged mom before conducting the necessary DNA tests to prove his kinship. Early reels convincingly crosscut between Catherine’s gloomy household, where she’s decided to keep Tony’s room fully intact, and the mumblings and wanderings of Matteo as he prepares to infiltrate the family.

Once the two are brought together, de Maistre keeps the camera glued to the actors’ faces as they reveal both false hopes and crushingly real emotions. Meanwhile, the suspense surrounding Matteo’s true identity propels the action toward a subtle yet haunting denouement.

Belgian thesp Gourmet provides the kind of wide-eyed, stress-bucket performance that’s made him a favorite of the Dardenne brothers, while Miou-Miou’s portrayal of Catherine is a well-adjusted escape from her usual comic turns. Modest tech package covers the action with minimal camera movement and intimately lit interiors by d.p. Eric Guichard, who also shot “Mark of an Angel.” Herve Lavandier’s simple yet evocative score adds a powerful chill to the silence accompanying the characters’ unwanted suffering.

For a Son

France-Belgium

Production

A Rezo Films (in France) release of a One World Films, Dragons Films production, with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, La Region Wallonne. (International sales: One World Films, Paris.) Produced by Marc du Pontavice, Didier Lupfer. Executive producer, Matthew Gledhill. Directed, written by Alix de Maistre.

Crew

Camera (color), Eric Guichard; editor, Emmanuelle Labbe; music, Herve Lavandier; production designer, Francoise Joset; costume designers, Annie Fournier, Sabine Zappitelli; sound (Dolby Digital), Ricardo Castro, Cecile Chagnaud, Philippe Baudhuin; assistant director, Dmitri Linder; casting, Marion Tenet, Michael Bier, Nathalie Cheron. Reviewed at Elysees Lincoln 1, Paris, Mar. 10, 2009. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Miou-Miou, Olivier Gourmet, Kevin Lelannier, Josse de Pauw, Laurent Capelluto, Jules Brunet.
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