Of course a filmmaker of André Téchiné’s standing doesn’t simply “toss off” a feature, but it remains dispiriting that a director who can make emotionally trenchant movies — including the recent success “Being 17” — is also able to turn out duds like “Farewell to the Night.” Though “based on an original idea,” there’s very little originality in this story of a woman (Catherine Deneuve) discovering her grandson has been radicalized by Islamist extremists. As one of the more inclusive Western directors when it comes to Arab talent, Téchiné aims for a bit of character balance, but in the end, the film stumbles into the usual banal pitfalls and features some truly lamentable scenes. A modest Euro release is the best that can be expected.
Clunky chapter demarcations — “First day of spring 2015,” “Second day of spring 2015,” etc. — unintentionally call attention to how slowly each day passes rather than lend the narrative a sense of urgency. Muriel (Deneuve) is an independent woman in the French Basque region with a large horse farm and cherry orchard. She’s excited that grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein, “Being 17”) is coming back, and not particularly bothered that he dropped out of med school. Though perhaps not entirely thrilled he’s in a relationship with Lila (Oulaya Amamra, “Divines”), a nurse’s aide and ranch helper he’s known since childhood, Muriel wants to be nothing but supportive.
What she doesn’t know is that Lila has radicalized Alex, now a Muslim convert, or that the two are gathering money to join ISIS in Syria. “What will you do if I die?” he asks his fresh-faced, eager-eyed young girlfriend. “I’ll be proud of you,” comes the expected response. The script tries hard to make Lila a more three-dimensional figure than is usually granted to such a character, and in part it works, thanks greatly to Amamra’s charisma. She’s warm and kind to the seniors in her care at a nursing home, so she’s not a monster, yet as a clumsy scene with other jihadists shows, she’s also not fully aware of what she’s getting into, which makes a late revelation that the cops have had their eyes on her for six months ring false.
About that clumsy scene: Téchiné awkwardly cuts back and forth between a celebratory secular luncheon Muriel attends, where a bouncy teen girl incongruously dances around in her bra, and a jihadi gathering with Lila, sporting a hijab for the first time, excitedly talking with a woman recently returned from Raqqa. Yes, we get the contrast, but does it have to be so over-the-top and poorly edited? Also, does Alex need to be so one-dimensional? With his character stuck on “earnest” mode, he’s depicted as an angry young man still processing his mother’s death and searching for a meaning to life. While the profile fits many Western jihadis, the script keeps him a cardboard cut-out, a simulacrum of radicalized white boys that makes him no more “like us” than Bilal (Stéphane Bak), the couple’s Islamist mentor.
When Muriel is alerted that Alex has forged her signature on a few checks, she examines his room and finds the farewell note he conveniently left next to his computer, stating his intentions. Not knowing what else to do, she lures him into the stables and padlocks the door, then calls Fouad (Kamel Labroudi), a former jihadist fighter who repentantly came back to France and turned himself over, hoping he can talk sense into her grandson.
Fouad is the best-drawn character here, even if he’s clearly designed to fill the role of the “good young Arab” rejecting ISIS after a brief flirtation. Otherwise, the film is a flat drama about a real issue, given the depth of a TV movie-of-the-week. Téchiné is attuned to how Arabs are generally treated in the media, so he includes Muriel’s foreman Youssef (Mohamed Djouhri), a moderate, assimilated Muslim angry at the way his religion has been hijacked by extremists, and several of the extremists themselves are seen as confused people who’ve latched onto a philosophy they don’t truly understand. Conceptually the biggest flaw is in the Alex character, crying out for more shading in order to make him come alive.
Deneuve’s role isn’t weighty enough to carry the picture, and the silly scene of her locking Alex into the stable does no one any favors. This is the director’s sixth film with DP Julien Hirsch (and his eighth with Deneuve), with whom he’s developed a visual language foregrounding controlled camera movements that elegantly bisect and circle around space. There are many visual pleasures to be had in “Farewell to the Night,” especially among the blossoming cherry trees and the contrast between sea and mountains around Perpignan, but they’re not enough to paper over the film’s significant narrative and construction flaws.