“My Son” is an austere, claustrophobic drama about a nuclear famille that explodes due to a mother’s smothering love. Suspenseful, sometimes emotionally challenging pic would have benefited from focusing more on psychological causes and less on dramatic effects: It creates those effects artfully, but without ever tackling the complexities behind them. Limited offshore arthouse and fest bookings look likeliest for this perhaps over-archetypal Gallic item, which shared the Best Film award at Spain’s recent San Sebastian fest.
The first frames show a stretcher being brought out through a front door in a bourgeois, curtain-twitching neighborhood. Initially all seems fine: sweet-faced, gentle Julien (Victor Sevaux) and his mother (Nathalie Baye) dance together to a schmaltzy song, Julien takes piano classes from his grandmother (Emmanuelle Riva), at whose house he secretly meets with his g.f.
However, the apparent happiness hides horror. Julien’s school grades are getting worse, and his academic father (Olivier Gourmet) is sullen and absent. When his mother insists Julien reveal his penis to her as he’s changing, there are suggestions that something sexual is happening — though typical of the pic’s tantalizing nature, this is never developed.
It becomes apparent that Julien, fearful of his mother’s reaction, is inventing excuses to be with his g.f.. He presents his mother with a gift of some Easter eggs he’s bought and she inexplicably goes wild with anger.
It’s clear to Julien’s sister Suzanne (Marie Kremer) that Mom is smothering him and making him unhappy, but her attempts to raise the subject are met with more anger from mother and silence from father, who just wants a quiet life. The violence later becomes physical, and when the father finally acts by slapping the mother in Julien’s defense, the aud at the press screening cathartically applauded.
Script and pacing combine to make auds feel they’re teetering on the edge of something awful. The mounting tensions rise almost imperceptibly.Baye is normally not associated with such dark roles, and seems to be reveling in her new role as a Cruella de Ville of the suburbs, for which she took the actress gong at San Sebastian. Her natural grace and style are in effective counterpoint to the repressed demons raging within her — but those demons are never encountered, apart from a couple of vague references to her being unwell. This is a monodimensional monster, fascinating but shallow and decontextualized: it is not enough simply to blame repressive bourgeois life for the existence of such people.
The gaucheness of the reliable Gourmet’s appearance is likewise a reflection of the father’s grindingly turgid inner life, while the pale, beautiful Sevaux has a fragility that makes him an almost too-perfect victim.
Subtle ironies abound, as when mother tells the uncomprehending Julien it’s better to tell a lie than to hurt someone’s feelings: of course, she is telling herself a big lie to avoid being hurt. More is conveyed through nervous glances and flickers of despair than through dialogue, suggesting anything resembling real communication is impossible.
The introduction of a gun into proceedings late on is an unnecessary distraction, an awkward touch in an otherwise slickly scripted piece.
Naturally given all the emotional claustrophobia, pic mostly unfolds in the unexciting interiors of the family house: Eric Barboza’s dully decorated, pale-brown interiors are appropriate for a home without love.