The English-language title “40-Love” hints that Stephane Demoustier’s misleadingly low-key thriller will eventually steer its way into high-stakes tennis matches, though going in, you’d never guess how the tale unfolds, unless perhaps you know the news report on which it’s based. What begins as a portrait of a newly unemployed French dad takes unexpected turns as the story emerges, shifting its attention to his sports-prodigy son, while revealing new psychological layers nearly every quarter-hour. It’s an imperfect debut but a remarkable one nonetheless, liable to bore sensation seekers, while tipping an impressive new talent toward more subtlety-oriented fest auds.
Who is the main character of “40-Love”? Is it Jerome Sauvage (Olivier Gourmet), the middle-aged sales manager who refuses to accept defeat after losing his job at a chain store? Or is the protagonist really his 11-year-old son, Ugo (impressively unaffected newcomer Charles Merienne), whose impassive face fills the pic’s final shot? On the surface, this is a film about the Sauvage family, but dig into its rich trove of themes, and it’s really “about” Western society and the pressures that are exerted on all families.
Jerome is the star of his own life. This is normal. Human beings — indeed, all sentient beings — are fundamentally egocentric, focused on their personal hungers, pains and pleasures. The sign of maturity, therefore, is empathy — that moment, however early or late in life (it’s different for everyone, and never arrives for some), when an individual is able to see beyond his own experience and consider the feelings of others. For many, this realization is forced upon them with parenthood: Confronted with another person who depends on their protection and concern, they become a little less selfish, potentially even recognizing that “winning,” as they see it, can be projected forward a generation.
Jerome hasn’t clued into that lesson yet. He’s still worried about his own pride. Being fired from work is a major setback, but also a liberating one. In Jerome’s mind, it’s not too late to start over, and he immediately begins researching the products and locations where he could open his own shoe store. (Gourmet’s a bit too old for the role, nearer to retirement than reinvention, but he’s too strong an actor to pass up.) If that means bending a few laws — counting customers outside busy shopping venues, posing as an inspector to sneak a peek at the competition’s sales ledgers — so be it.
So, is it any wonder that his son will stop at nothing to earn a spot at the Roland Garros tennis center? At first, Ugo seems at best a background character in Jerome’s story, watching tennis on TV and getting in the way of his dad’s professional dreams, which might seem dreary to anyone else. Early on, audiences may be eager for something to intrude. Working from a script punched up by French collaboration queen Gaelle Mace (who co-wrote “Grand Central” with Rebecca Zlotowski), Demoustier focuses on seemingly mundane moments, withholding traditional exposition while expecting us to figure things out on our own. (Some of these indications are actually a bit too obvious, like they ultra-weary looks Valeria Bruni Tedeschi gives as Jerome’s wife.)
But then Dad takes Ugo in for a physical, where the doctors express concern. His son has a very rare condition, and without going into what it is or how it changes their lives — for there are many more twists ahead — suffice to say the rest of the film becomes a textbook case of a selfish father being forced to adjust his priorities.
Will audiences pick up on these themes? Maybe not. To many, it may seem a bit blah with its nondescript backgrounds (filmed near Villeneuve d’Ascq, where Demoustier grew up) and endless tennis-practice scenes (the director played the sport as a child and discovered his young lead, talented both onscreen and on the court, while making a documentary about junior players).
But “40-Love” may be the year’s best example of a film, like Joachim Lafosse’s “Our Children” or Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown,” in which a detailed examination of a specific family reveals volumes about a larger social phenomenon. And though subtle, it’s uncanny how Demoustier elicits genuine empathy for Ugo (as in a late-night drunk-driving scene where we catch our breath in concern), which is precisely how he manages to pull off the film’s shifting focus between father and son — an extended volley back and forth, with the ball ultimately landing in Ugo’s court.