General commercial prospects for this pic about morality and immortality look short-lived.

Guillaume Depardieu contracted his fatal case of viral pneumonia last year in Bucharest working on “The Childhood of Icarus,” and whether due to that or other factors, he looks terribly ill throughout this directing debut from Romanian producer Alexandre Iordachescu. Since he plays a medical patient undergoing experimental treatments, that works somewhat for the narrative, such as it is. But the faintly futuristic tale loses all initial intrigue once it becomes clear that numerous cloudy plot points aren’t going to be clarified, with results more enervating than enigmatic. General commercial prospects for this pic about morality and immortality look short-lived.

Still, morbid curiosity will earn the pic some theatrical traction in France, while the sci-fi premise will attract some offshore ancillary despite lack of usual genre trappings, let alone action or narrative payoff.

Jonathan (Depardieu) is a “penniless lawyer” whose practice and marriage both apparently fell apart after a motorcycle accident caused him to lose one leg (just as the actor did in 1995). Desperate, he volunteers as the first human subject for genetic therapy devised by professor Karr (Carlo Brandt) that promises to endlessly regenerate the body, correcting nature’s “mistake” of mortal life.

Sequestered at the luxurious estate that encompasses lab and spa for Karr’s rich patrons, Jonathan is looked after by the doc’s smilingly stern assistant-cum-lover Mathilde (Patricia Bopp) and aggressively sexy nurse Anna (Doroteea Petre). He’s also the object of considerable interest from widower Karr’s only child, grown daughter Alice (Alysson Paradis), herself the victim of a rare genetic disease and subject of her dad’s professional care, though his protectiveness sometimes has a creepily incestuous tenor.

The treatments work, yet at the same time, unanticipated side effects suggest Jonathan will die anyway. Alice urges him to escape before he becomes a casualty from either internal mutation or an even more premature demise, planned to prevent an umbrella corporation’s shareholders from discovering the experiment’s failure.

All too convincingly weak and disoriented, Depardieu’s pained presence as protag holds the film together as much as possible. Still, “Icarus” never really gets off the ground. Early contrast between subtly futuristic, all-white lab interiors and the lush manicured grounds is atmospheric, helped by longtime Swiss industrial band the Young Gods’ original score. But the screenplay’s myriad ambiguities — why did Jonathan’s wife leave him? Just what is wrong with Alice? — simply frustrate as no answers emerge. Nor does any suspense or sense of metaphysical mystery arise to prevent viewer attention from dissipating.

Handsome-enough pic’s eccentricities aren’t compelling enough to hold interest on their own, reaching a pointless nadir when Alice sings a vapid dream-pop song at a reception for no evident reason other than to give the junior Paradis (Vanessa’s sister) a musical spotlight. Whether it’s miscasting or misconception, her scenes in general are the weakest link here.

Other thesps are OK in one-dimensional roles. Throughout, Depardieu gives his all, though this is one of those discomfiting instances (calling to mind Massimo Troisi in “Il Postino”) where it’s hard to separate the acting from the actor’s real, evident distress.

Shot in Romania, the pic is pro in tech and design depts. English title has previously been advertised as “The Way Beyond.”

The Childhood of Icarus

Switzerland

Production

An Elefant Films Sarl production in association with Elefant Film and Freshline Prod. (International sales: EastWest, Vienna.) Produced by Ruxandra Zenide, Dan Burlack, Alexandre Iordachescu. Co-producer, Christophe Servell. Directed by Alexandre Iordachescu. Screenplay, Iordachescu, Marianne Brun, Marchel Beaulieu.

Crew

Camera (color), Marius Panduru; editors, Catalin F. Cristutiu, Iordachescu; music, the Young Gods; production designer, Calin Papura; costume designers, Mihaela David, Leticia Rochaix-Ortiz; sound (Dolby Surround), Eric Ghersinu, Cristinel Sirli. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (First Films, competing), Aug. 30, 2009. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Guillaume Depardieu, Alysson Paradis, Carlo Brandt, Dorteea Petre, Sophie Lukasik, Patricia Bopp, Jean-Pierre Gos, Madalina Constantin. (French dialogue)
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