A hirsute sad sack’s inability to escape a monumentally needy mother — or his own paranoid fixations on mortality — are the stuff of idiosyncratic comedy in “Death by Death.” Not so far-flung from the fate-controlled, aggressively quirky cinematic universe of fellow Belgian Jaco Van Dormael, Xavier Seron’s debut narrative feature nonetheless eventually arrives at its own distinctive aesthetic and tonal character. Winner of the Palm Springs Film Festival’s New Voices/New Visions competition, this black-and-white tale looks to be a marginal theatrical prospect, but should accrue a cult following in home formats.
Our first glimpses of Michel (Jean-Jacques Rausin) are as a babe suckling at his mother’s ample breast, and as a 37-year-old adult trying on a coffin for size — signposts of a character whose present-tense life goes nowhere while he continually obsesses over its origin and demise. A none-too-successful aspiring actor who works at an appliance store (alongside Serge Riaboukine as his only friend, the loyal but angrily temperamental Darek), Michel despairs of his general stasis, yet at the same time seems self-defeating.
The defining relationships in his life are with two wildly dependent, neurotic women. Foremost there’s his mother, Monique (veteran Gallic thesp Myriam Boyer, gamely grotesque), whose genuine health issues are probably outpaced by her hypochondria — a realm in which he’s already proving no slouch himself. While no longer able to care for herself, she refuses to move into a suitable rest home, using her dozen “babies” (i.e. housecats) as an excuse. But mostly, she seems simply to enjoy dominating the time and attention of her only child, whose father presumably split for greener pastures long ago.
Offering scant relief from this maternal clinging is Michel’s girlfriend, Aurelie (Fanny Touron), a painter whose art has yet to gain appreciation, but whose mercurial emotions do not lack for color and vigor. She, too, is suffocatingly dependent on him — until, that is, the return of a handsome doctor ex-beau (Benjamin Le Souef) from an overseas stint turns her head faster and more alarmingly than Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.”
Divided into coyly titled chapters (“The Palpitation of Christ,” “Mothers, Mortals, Mammaries,” etc.) “Death by Death” — whose original-language title translates roughly as “I’ve Been Trying to Tell You” — is both inventive and overly self-conscious in its eccentricities for a while. Virtually every scene is based around some off-kilter character dynamic or incongruous element; occasionally pretentious religious symbolism and not-always-inspired scatological humor sometimes simply seem to be working too hard for effect. While the presentation (especially d.p. Olivier Vanaschen’s arresting monochrome compositions) always stimulates, the vignette structure doesn’t have a lot of narrative muscle, with our protag’s fears of death (he thinks there’s a lump behind one nipple) eventually overtaking his travails with Mom and Aurelie.
Nonetheless (and despite a sustained closing shot that feels gratuitously outre), the pic does finally acquire some depth beyond its willfully oddball surface. Much of that is due to Rausin, who invests Michel with increasing, hapless pathos as his fortunes predictably go ever further south. Other actors grasp the semi-farcical weirdness Seron aims for in less dimensionalized roles. Small in physical and narrative scope but consistently bold in its stylistic choices, the film is resourcefully turned in all tech/design departments.