A driven investigative magistrate goes overboard in protecting her adopted son from discovering his biological mother in Yves Angelo’s engrossing if exaggerated psychological noir, “Too Close to Our Son.” Technically flawless and expertly played, especially by Mathilde Bisson as the courtesan-like nemesis, the pic excels at making its characters immediately fascinating. But between the clever opening and the taut finale, there’s an overextended middle filled with too many stupid moves by ostensibly intelligent characters. Still, “Too Close” is an enjoyable ride that didn’t deserve to disappear after a late September opening.
The inelegant English-lingo title isn’t likely to help the film’s offshore chances: The original translates to “Nearest to the Sun,” with none of the wordplay between “son” and “sun” that exists in English. And there’s plenty of both, since the movie is set in the Mediterranean port of Toulon, which is where we meet Juliette (Bisson), at a beach cafe on the phone with her lover, Pierre (John Arnold), sitting nearby with his wife. Furious at her brazenness, he tells her they’re through; she taunts him saying that’s not possible. Shortly after, he offs himself.
The law is on to Juliette after they discover Pierre put a hefty chunk of change into her bank account over the past three years. Cool as a cucumber and certain of her charms, Juliette is called in for questioning by hardass magistrate Sophie (Sylvie Testud). During the interrogation, when Juliette’s life is laid out, Sophie realizes the swaggering woman across from her, once arrested for prostitution, must be the biological mother of her adopted teen son, Leo (Zacharie Chasseriaud).
The tenacious Sophie goes off, fixated on prosecuting her for any charge that will stick, and determined that Juliette and Leo never find out about each other. Sophie’s lawyer husband, Olivier (Gregory Gadebois), thinks there are better ways of ensuring Juliette fades away, so he contacts the woman, claiming to be Pierre’s friend and offering to tide her over until her assets are unfrozen by the courts. Ever the mercenary, Juliette figures there’s something not right: Why give her money if Olivier doesn’t want a roll in the hay? Tensions ratchet up as each person thinks they’re neutralizing an adversary, but everything is bound to blow up in their faces.
The trio of scripters — Angelo himself, along with Francois Dupeyron and Gilles Legrand — must have had great fun building their story, yet halfway through audiences are likely to step back and wonder why Sophie never shifts from her relentless terrier stance, and why Olivier is so clueless when his actions will clearly have disastrous consequences. In many ways, “Too Close to Our Son” resembles a classic noir, which works greatly to its advantage, yet the rhythms falter until the final scenes on a cruise ship, which are played to horrifying perfection.
Fortunately, Juliette’s character is so well conceived, and such fun, that memories of Bisson’s knowing stare will bring reciprocal smiles of amusement long after the final credits. Harkening back to powerful femme fatales of yore, she’s a deliriously enjoyable gold digger made sympathetic because she’s being screwed by a power couple who think they have immunity in toying with others’ lives. Full marks to Bisson, previously seen in small roles, for making Juliette such a forcefully engaging figure, her self-protective swagger only rarely budging to reveal a woman who can still feel life’s knocks. Testud hardens her features to suit the role, and it’s not her fault there’s little modulation in Sophie’s character; the unexpected pairing of Testud and Gadebois works well in making this entitled duo more interesting.
Given Angelo’s celebrated career as d.p. as well as helmer, it’s no surprise that the visuals are top-notch: clean, sensitive to the sun’s effects, inquisitive without prying, and partial to closeups that trust their subjects to hold the screen. The final shipboard scenes in particular are a model of classic filmmaking, expertly edited by Fabrice Rouaud as the characters find and lose one another in a disorienting locale so unlike their usual haunts.