Early in “Everything Went Fine,” ailing 85-year-old André asks — instructs, really — his daughter Emmanuèle to help him end his life. After a brief period of understandable panic, she takes the assignment more or less in stride, give or take the odd cry behind closed bathroom doors. “Why would your father ask this of his daughter?” her bewildered husband asks her in bed one night. “That’s why, because I’m his daughter,” she replies, seemingly amazed he has to ask. Thus does François Ozon’s tender-hearted but cool-headed euthanasia drama effectively divide the world into people who understand this and people who don’t, while remaining sympathetic to all parties.
Adapted from French writer Emmanuèle Bernheim’s memoir of her father’s death, this elegantly written, persuasively performed drama finds the ever-unpredictable Ozon in his plainest, most pragmatic gear as a filmmaker. (There’s something here of “By the Grace of God’s” stoicism in the face of thematic gravity, but in a looser, more casual register.) The results are cinematically low-key, but a tony cast of familiar faces, led by a terrific Sophie Marceau and André Dussollier as father and daughter, will help generate international art-house interest.
“Everything Went Fine” is not, however, especially interested in stoking the debate and controversy that tend to trail films on this thorny topic. The ethics of assisted suicide are not being relitigated here, even as André’s friends and family express more personal reservations over this stubbornly determined strategy. If André isn’t fighting for his life, following a severe stroke that has left him hospitalized for months, Emmanuèle isn’t fighting over it.
What ensues is more a tricky period of negotiation, heavy on the banal practicalities of ending a life, revealing much gallows humor amid the rougher emotional labor. Complicated family baggage also emerges in the process, though Ozon doesn’t treat any of it — particularly conflicts related to the dying man’s sexuality — as a shadowed mystery to be solved. Instead, he simply trusts his audience to intuit what the characters have long wearied of talking about.
Indeed, as a film about death, “Everything Went Fine” almost seems as grown-up and detached as André would like the whole ordeal to be, beginning with the brisk irony of that title. But life inevitably throws up messier emotional barriers to the best (or worst) laid plans: No man is an island, and no man, it turns out, can die on one either. “In the end, they usually choose life,” a doctor calmly shrugs in response to Emmanuèle, who is shocked that her father has voiced his euthanasia plan outside the family; she and her younger sister Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas) aren’t quite as willing to airily hope that their father’s death wish is a passing phase.
How much they’d miss him if he went through with it is another of the film’s pleasing points of ambiguity. André, a proponent of tough love in their childhood, has in turn remained tough to love throughout their lives. In a handful of tart, terse flashbacks to Emmanuèle’s teen years, he’s brusque and verbally abusive toward her. According to Pascale — tellingly never present in any of these brief, jarring jumps back in time — that still counts as more attention than she ever received. “He’s not interested in girls,” Pascale’s own teen daughter remarks flatly when asked why she won’t visit him in hospital: Time and grandfatherhood, it seems, haven’t softened him. That André chose only one daughter to burden with his request is a running source of flinty tension between two otherwise lovingly supportive sisters: Perhaps, Pascale somewhat acidly suggests, Emmanuèle should see it as a gift.
“Everything Went Fine” abounds in this kind of fragile, viciously knotted family drama, though Ozon’s candid, often bluntly funny screenplay keeps it at a low temperature throughout. Much water has already passed under the bridge as the story begins, and though André’s wishes have imposed a strict deadline on any unaired personal laundry, nobody has the time to make it about themselves. Least visibly moved by his plight is his estranged wife Claude, a sculptor herself more gradually checking out of life following lengthy battles with illness and depression. In a startling, starkly curtailed role, past Ozon muse Charlotte Rampling plays her as a study in resigned, compacted hardness — the camera scrutinizes her features as if she were one of Claude’s own concrete artworks, searching for cracks and shifts in expression.
If Claude solemnly favors an exclusively gray palette for her art, Ozon counters expectations with the warmth and brightness of the film’s aesthetic: As Emmanuèle, Marceau is frequently cushioned in blazing reds and cobalt blues, a kind of running visual complement to the brave face she insists on putting on things. But it’s a tacit reminder, too, of the relative comfort in which this plushly bourgeois, culturally discerning family gets to sort out this crisis. The Swiss clinic where André wishes to end it all will charge €10,000 for the privilege, and the money, at least, is not among this brood’s various issues. “I wonder how poor people do it,” André muses. “They wait to die,” his daughter lightly snaps. It’s an exchange typical of Ozon’s smart, measured but still deeply human take on a hot subject. You can’t put a price on life, they say. Death, not so much.