Agnes le Roux, heiress to a multimillion-dollar casino fortune in Nice, France, isn’t the only thing missing in Andre Techine’s “In the Name of My Daughter.” A mobster movie without whackings, a thriller without suspense and a courtroom drama without resolution, this turgid retelling of an unsolved missing-persons case functions mostly as a portrait of a young woman who loved too passionately and the manipulative creep incapable of reciprocating her affections. Outside France, few will care to take Techine’s stuffy waxworks tour, which boasts the least interesting of seven collaborations between Catherine Deneuve and her “My Favorite Season” helmer.
Deneuve plays Renee Le Roux, grand dame of the Palais de la Mediterranee, virtually the last casino on the French Riviera that stood in the way of a hostile takeover by a rich and powerful rival named Fratoni (Jean Corso). Whereas the widowed Renee is singlehandedly trying to preserve a certain old-school tradition, this powerful adversary, armed with Mafia money and well-placed political allies, has bulldozed in with a plan to revamp Nice in the Las Vegas tradition.
Though the city’s high-stakes casino war sounds inherently cinematic (as does the title of Renee’s memoir, “Une femme face a la Mafia”), Techine rejects flashy Scorsese-style theatrics in favor of a more Shakespearean tragedy: With no shortage of enemies, Renee was ultimately betrayed by her own daughter, Agnes (Adele Haenel), who had fallen under the influence of the family’s personal business adviser, Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet, a normally seductive actor made to look stiff and suspicious).
Instead of dramatizing the Mafia threat, Techine films Deneuve discovering a high-caliber bullet on her desk. Later, Renee stages a press conference in which she describes being attacked on her way to the mailbox — a scene that surely would have been more satisfying to witness firsthand. Deneuve comes across as something of an old warhorse here, dripping in old-lady makeup and fighting for justice 30 years after her daughter’s disappearance with as much force as she’d mustered defending the casino.
During the extended flashback when most of the story takes place, the film paints Agnes as a complete outsider to the decadent world Renee so effortlessly inhabits, and to which Maurice so desperately aspires. Intense yet independent, recently divorced, Agnes returns to Nice in 1976 looking for change. She’s obsessed with Africa and determined to make her own way running a small, esoteric bookstore.
Maurice serves as a buffer between Agnes and her mother, a lawyer-turned-lapdog who does Renee’s bidding in hopes of one day running the casino himself. Whereas Canet rather astonishingly subsumes himself in the role, the lesser-known Haenel (who also stars in Directors’ Fortnight multiple award-winner “Les Combattants”) seems to have been cast for her own tomboyish energy. The actress hardly ever blinks, which can be unsettling, even as it reinforces the character’s defiant independence. During the pair’s initial flirtation, neither seems especially interested in the other, but Agnes is capable of intense passion — as displayed in a remarkable African-dancing scene — while Maurice remains forever detached.
Both Agnes’ and Agnelet’s names suggest a “little lamb” (“agneau”), and yet neither was as innocent in what followed as some might believe. Certainly, Agnes’ brother, Jean-Charles Le Roux (who collaborated on the script with Techine) remains convinced that Maurice was responsible for his sister’s death, though the director endeavors to present a more ambiguous portrait. The film winds up in court, which resolves nothing, except how poorly each of the actors looks layered in old-age prosthetics.
Techine’s no amateur when it comes to filmmaking, and though he seems to have omitted what most moviegoers might want from the story (apart, perhaps, from gorgeous Riviera scenery and a deceptively romantic score), he’s clearly less preoccupied with the criminal elements than he is with other people’s emotions — the very thing Maurice icily claims he does “everything I can to avoid.” Here was a man who loved to be loved, and yet understood nothing of what that entails.