Doggedly uncommercial, and paying not a whit of heed to changing fashion, former thesp Gerard Blain climbs behind the camera again for his eighth feature, “Ainsi soit-il,” another austere, Bressonian exercise shot through with implacable logic. Though Blain sets himself up for a fall each time with his undisguised admiration for the Gallic maestro of minimalism, he generally succeeds in bringing it off — not least here, in a drama about a son solving the mystery of his father’s death that has a genuine power and spirituality for those attuned to reductive cinema.
Pic showed out of competition at Locarno, where Blain’s first feature, “Les amis,” won the top prize in 1971. This time round, Blain was awarded an honorary Golden Leopard for his body of work. Film starts with a very long fixed shot of earth being thrown on a coffin in the ground, and the characters are gradually introduced as the story unfolds. It turns out that the dead man was Georges Vasseur, legal director of a civil engineering company, and that he was murdered. While Vasseur’s wife and two daughters grieve silently, his son, Regis (Paul Blain), 27, sets out to unravel the mystery and get payback.
A file left with the family lawyer implicates the company’s director, the son of Vasseur’s late partner, and Regis begins a cool game of cat-and-mouse, with the precision of a guided missile.
All the Bressonian hallmarks are there: fixed camera, simple but precise cutting, slightly stilted, formal dialogue, and dispassionate exteriors hiding grand emotions. As Regis, Paul Blain even possesses the same wounded-deer look of some of Bresson’s classic heroes (“Diary of a Country Priest,” “Pickpocket,” “A Man Escaped”), a moral martyr to a cause that’s higher than the law — represented here by a sympathetic but by-the-book cop — can ever understand.
The scenes of mutual family warmth, as the mother falls into a depression, have wordless simplicity and grace that the actors bring off magnificently. Helmer Blain has a natural eye for figure composition that’s almost Renaissance in its groupings, even though his lighting style is plain and unadorned.
Pic is dedicated to Blain’s four sons and their two mothers, all listed by name at the start.