Unquestionably the classiest movie in this year’s Locarno competition, though totally ignored by the jury, “The Way I Killed My Father” is Gallic metaphysical filmmaking at its finest, with a cast headed by veteran Michel Bouquet in top form. A pic of cool, lustrous surfaces hiding seething, self-destructive emotions, Anne Fontaine’s fifth feature, centered on a wealthy bourgeois family’s relationships with each other and their late paterfamilias, reps a quality leap for the writer-director into territory well-charted by helmers like Claude Chabrol and the late Claude Sautet. In the hands of the right distrib, this could clock up appreciative offshore biz among upscale auds attuned to the finer things in cinematic life.
The sheer sense of control over the material and her cast is something new in Fontaine’s output, which has swung between comedy and quirky drama and has yet to develop a clear profile among foreign viewers. In its cool but gripping examination of deep-seated emotions, the film also recalls Francois Ozon’s recent “Under the Sand,” with Charlotte Rampling as a wife devastated by her husband’s death.
Opening sets up a teasing, slightly abstract air as successful Versailles gerontologist Jean-Luc (Charles Berling) listens to a patient confessing to his fears of aging. Back home in his plush manse, Jean-Luc receives news of his father’s death and, alone in a room looking on to the sheltered garden, he settles into a reverie as the screen fades.
With background fed to the viewer only in bits and pieces, it’s initially unclear whether the rest of the movie is a continuation of the present or a memory flashback. (In fact, it’s the latter.) For at least the first half-hour, there’s an added frisson from the possibility that Jean-Luc and the other characters may be projecting the dead father into their current lives, as they work out their feelings in the wake of the man’s passing.
There’s little plot in the conventional sense, with most of the dramatic tension coming from the way in which the characters circle each other emotionally and the way their various backstories are unveiled. The pic’s icy stillness — wonderfully enhanced by Jean-Marc Fabre’s pristine lensing — virtually makes it a metaphysical thriller: When two of the characters briefly turn on each other after a car crash, the effect is quite shocking.
When the father, Maurice (Bouquet), reappears after a long self-exile, his smiling self-confidence and utter lack of guilt at abandoning his family slowly expose inadequacies among the small group. Jean-Luc’s young, elegant wife, Isa (Natacha Regnier, in an impressive switch from her usual girly roles), is gradually seduced by Maurice’s serpentine charm and, in a fine scene over lunch with him, confesses her hidden weaknesses, her desire for children, and her knowledge that Jean-Luc had a brief fling with his beautiful Syrian assistant (Amira Casar).
Jean-Luc’s younger brother, Patrick (Stephane Guillon), also has several large chips on his shoulder, releasing his emotions as an amateur standup comic when not being Jean-Luc’s paid chauffeur.
The most deep-seated problems, however, are between Jean-Luc and his father, also a successful doctor, who chucked a comfortable life to work in the Third World. The father’s rejection of bourgeois comforts grinds on Jean-Luc, who also clearly feels trapped but lacks the guts to do anything about it.
Returning to French movies after almost a decade, Bouquet is simply superb as the father, mixing playfulness with a sense of regret that Jean-Luc misunderstood his reason for disappearing. In a role that some viewers may have difficulty empathizing with, Berling is as tight as a drum, infusing every one of his scenes with distilled tension. Only character to be shortchanged by the script is Casar’s doctor, who never really comes into focus.
Co-scripter Jacques Fieschi, chief editor of Cinematographe magazine for 10 years, has a largely distinguished screen oeuvre, working with Maurice Pialat, Nicole Garcia, Benoit Jacquot and Olivier Assayas, as well as on Fontaine’s previous “Augustin, King of Kung-fu.” In flavor, however, “Father” is closest to two fine, highly controlled scripts he wrote for Sautet, “A Heart in Winter” and “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud.”
Perfectly enhancing the mood is Jocelyn Pook’s string score, possessed of a wonderful stillness in which emotions often seem to hang suspended in time.