If you keep only half an eye on the state of contemporary French cinema, you might be forgiven for thinking that the children of Renoir, Bresson and Godard have all lately forged some unholy alliance with the sweat-soaked, lubed-up toilers in Europe‘s porn industry. The edifying delights that this trend has given us recently include a graphic nine-minute rape in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, close-up beaver shots in Bruno Dumont‘s L’Humanite, and the “look-Ma-no-cutaways” blowjobs and vaginal penetrations, be they consensual or coercive, that are dotted across Catherine Breillat‘s Romance, Coralie Trinh Thi and Virginie Despentes’ Baise-Moi, and Patrice Chereau‘s Intimacy. Those who believe that this in-your-face approach often generates more heat and noise (and sweat and cum) than insight or illumination may be relieved to learn that certain older, more outwardly “respectable” traditions of French cinema remain safe in the hands of directors like Anne Fontaine, and gloriously encapsulated in her latest film, How I Killed My Father.
Where the new shock merchants tend mainly to rely on the strength (to say nothing of the stench) of powerful imagery, Fontaine is more interested in how things are shown. Her meticulous directorial style, with its unhurried formal clarity and emotional lucidity, along with her continuing interest in the disruptions of bourgeois lives, suggest an affinity with Claude Chabrol, whose career over the last half-century has mapped out the broad generic territory in which Fontaine presently labors — cold, emotionally moribund middle-class lives suddenly rent asunder by lust, greed or social anxiety. But this doesn’t make Fontaine a Chabrol imitator. She may be working with Chabrol‘s base metals, but her alchemy is subtly different, simultaneously calmer and more frenzied, its surface frigidity masking profound subterranean turmoil.
How I Killed My Father also has much in common with Fontaine’s 1997 movie Dry Cleaning, in which a small-business man and his wife (Charles Berling, Miou-Miou) have their lives turned upside down by a young, sexually flexible intruder whose arrival directs shafts of light into unexplored recesses of the couple‘s sterile marriage. Here, though, Fontaine shifts her attention from the cash-strapped lower middle classes to a more prosperous bourgeoisie, with the wonderfully chin-challenged Berling cast this time as Jean-Luc, a diffident, anal-retentive 40-year-old gerontologist with a lucrative practice (Botox, cosmetic surgery, etc.). The narrative is a long flashback from the day Jean-Luc receives notice that his estranged father has died . . . and already the title has become more interesting. Cut to several months earlier when, at a party to celebrate his 10 years of living in Versailles (“I was told it was a cold, bourgeois place,” he says, blissfully unaware that he’s a perfect fit), Jean-Luc is discomfited by the unexpected intrusion of his presumed-dead father, Maurice (Michel Bouquet), a shabbily dressed yet enormously dignified 75-year-old, whom Jean-Luc hasn‘t seen in years.
Isa, Jean-Luc’s fragrant, delicate wife of 10 years (Natacha Regnier), is charmed by the old man, and Jean-Luc — the main ingredient of whose dealings with Maurice seems to be a full measure of unexpressed bitterness — grudgingly offers him an attic room and a small allowance (“though I‘m not obliged to”). We learn only gradually that Maurice, also a doctor, abandoned his family 30 years earlier and moved to Africa to operate a health clinic for the poor, a clear rebuke to his money-worshipping son’s specialization. In short order, we‘ve also learned that Jean-Luc’s chauffeur, Patrick (Stephane Guillon), is his younger brother, that his Syrian assistant (Amira Casar) is his mistress, that his wife is his patient, and that their marriage, in which she is prized above all as a compliant, decorative possession, has had no issue, thanks, in part, to Jean-Luc‘s skill as a physician. Until Maurice’s arrival, Jean-Luc has convinced himself that such arrangements are perfectly normal. This will soon change, as his father‘s presence starts to uncover all the contradictions and hidden deceit.
Maurice is harder to read than his son or daughter-in-law. We speculate on his motives for returning even as we struggle to understand his real reasons for leaving in the first place. And now: Is he here to make recompense for his desertion? Or are his ambitions more malevolent? The casting of Bouquet, a renowned stage actor who’s also worked with Truffaut and Chabrol, is Fontaine‘s masterstroke. His round, bland face combines clarity with inscrutability, using only the mildest tightening of the eyes or mouth to indicate changes in mood. Yet for all its minimalism and apparent stasis, balanced against Berling’s visible guilt and resentment and Regnier‘s warmth and growing frustration, Bouquet’s acting has a remarkable richness and depth. He puts his co-stars very much on their mettle, and they rise superbly to the occasion.
To these incomparably subtle performances, Fontaine adds her serenely measured directorial style, giving the actors breathing space, but also pinning and confining them when appropriate. The entire film is structured around a color scheme of frigid blues and molten reds, with Maurice and Jean-Luc mainly associated with the former, and Isa with the latter, especially during one memorable shot in which, pale and tormented in a white nightdress, she seems almost to boil alive on a bright-scarlet couch. And the screenplay, by Fontaine and Jacques Fieschi, redeems classical, three-act story construction from the likes of screenwriting guru Syd Field, opting here to reveal, there to conceal, yet never appearing manipulative or overdetermined. The result is an intelligent, moving and invigorating film, just the thing for adults bored with the shock-horror posturing to be found in the work of so many young European directors.
Quitting, from Beijing director Zhang Yang (Shower), is also about parents and children seeking to rebuild their relationships, but there the similarities to Fontaine‘s film end. The son here is Chinese movie star Jia Hongsheng, who plays himself. Known to his fans as a “thug-idol,” Jia played gangsters and cops in early-’90s B movies before discovering heroin, dropping out of sight, abandoning his friends and family, and finally ending up in a state mental hospital. Zhang, who directed Jia in a 1992 stage version of Kiss of the Spider Woman — during which his art director turned his leading man on to drugs — later spent three years interviewing the actor and his family with a view to turning their story into a film. Jia‘s parents, who ran a state-sponsored theater group in northeast China, play themselves, as do his sister and everyone else in the cast, including the mental patients.
The result is not, says Zhang, a documentary, but a shaping of real-life experiences into a representative story of young people in the rapidly changing new China, where Walkmans and Big Macs jostle for space in a world still overseen by the gerontocracy that gave China the Cultural Revolution. Certainly Zhang has given his true story the trappings of fiction — narrative fluidity and coherence, flashbacks, etc. — but he’s also made the film seem heavily conscious of its own artifice, with talking-head interviews, characters addressing the camera, and tracking shots that occasionally pull backward to show that everything we‘re watching is taking place on a sound stage.
Whether Quitting will prove absorbing to American audiences is debatable: After all, it’s not like we don‘t have enough rehab stories of our own, and Jia often comes across as a sullen, unreachable brat. But if any local subtleties were lost in the movie’s transit to America, there are compensations aplenty in the acting, particularly between Jia Hongsheng and his boozy father, Jia Fengsen, and in Zhang‘s assured script and direction, which make no excuses for the “characters,” yet manage finally to explain and endear them to us.
HOW I KILLED MY FATHER | Directed by ANNE FONTAINE Written by JACQUES FIESCHI and FONTAINE | Produced by PHILIPPE CARCASSONE | Released by New Yorker Films | At Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, Laemmle’s Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7
QUITTING | Directed by ZHANG YANG | Written by HUO XIN and ZHANG | Produced by PETER LOEHR | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle‘s Music Hall and Playhouse 7