In her 2002 film, How I Killed My Father, French director Anne Fontaine lights the fuse of that incredible, Oedipal keg. What starts as a slow burn in one man's smoldering psyche inevitably gives way to the emotional pyrotechnics attendant to any good father-son relationship. Freudian-tinged father issues being so five minutes ago, the themes of How I Killed My Father easily could have been trite and tired in lesser hands. But Fontaine, directing a script she co-wrote with Jacques Fieschi, creates a much hotter and unexpectedly more interesting circle of filial hell.
Gerontologist Jean-Luc (Charles Berling) enjoys a flourishing practice in the posh Parisian suburb of Versailles. He spends his days consulting with patients desperate to live better longer. His seeming patience with their plight, we soon see, is little more than general impassivity. Even with friends and family, including his feckless comedian brother Patrick (Stéphane Guillon) and his nice, narcotized socialite wife Isa (Natacha Régnier), he is often remote, polite, off limits. When a gathering of admirers gifts him with a good-citizen medal, Jean-Luc's words are full of the appropriate emotions, but his icy eyes are not. The cause of this psychic malady? Early in his life, he was abandoned by father Maurice (Michel Bouquet), a man more devoted to his work in Africa and his own freedom than to his family, a man who has recently returned to haunt Jean-Luc.
Early on, Fontaine creates questions in the mind of the viewer. Do the events that unfold occur in real time? Or are they a father-killing figment of Jean-Luc's imagination? One of the great beauties of How I Killed My Father is this atmosphere of moody, magical unrealism. It is beautifully filmed in its simplicity, utilizing a primary palette reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs. The richness of each frame is overlaid with the lush notes of Jocelyn Pook's entrancing, relentless score. Taken together, these elements effortlessly create the big-picture reality-vs.-fantasy dilemma, and then wisely leave it far behind. The ambiguity is dramatic, the events (and performances) that follow more so.
True to its name, How I Killed My Father is no father-son picnic. There are no layers gently peeled back to see what lies beneath. There is only the psychological equivalent of strip mining. Maurice's return to Jean-Luc's world is an infinitesimal crack in the ice that rapidly widens bit by bit into a catastrophic crevasse. Sad Isa likes her newfound father-in-law a bit too much for Jean-Luc's taste, spending much time with him and sharing her secrets. Patrick, who has fewer abandonment issues because he has fewer memories of Maurice than his older brother, turns his prodigal father into a poignant punch line for his absurdist stand-up routine before ultimately embracing his return. (Interestingly, actor Guillon himself created the short, sparkling monologues his character delivers.) As wife and brother drift further and further away and secrets and lies begin to see the light of day, the increasingly petulant Jean-Luc reaches a boil. One night, out on the theatrically lit, well-manicured lawn, father and son face off in a fatal and fated frenzy of rage, contempt and self-loathing, the two literally at each other's throats in an appropriately emblematic embrace.
How I Killed My Father is a film in which, not unlike Claude Sautet's equally enigmatic Un Coeur en Hiver (a 1992 effort also co-written by Fieschi), nothing and everything happens. The major plot points are written on the faces of the film's actors. Berling (Ridicule) makes Jean-Luc's inner struggle both monstrous and magnetic, the hurt child becoming the damaged, damaging man. Screen veteran Bouquet (Tous les Matins du Monde) creates multiple Maurices: the careless father, the devoted professional, the fragile elder. Each man, at times -- and particularly Bouquet -- undergoes an emotional transition so transparent as to create the impression of a totally different actor. The writing team of Fontaine and Fieschi give these men wonderfully chilling things to say to each other in a script that is simultaneously spare and unsparing.
The irony of Jean-Luc's life up until his father's reappearance is that, without realizing it at all, he has become what he despises. He is successful, married, grounded, the titular head of the family. Scratch the surface, however, and he is a shadow man -- a physician because his father was one, a control freak because, once, his father wrecked his world. He remains angry with his father for leaving, but does worse to his own wife and brother. Jean-Luc is a doctor of the old who is still in the process of becoming a man. His patricidal pantomime is a stab at self-awareness, as much a rhetorical request for forgiveness of his own sins as an absolution of another's. Jean-Luc's deepest daddy issues are with the implacable, immovable Father Time.
- Like father, like son? Michel Bouquet, Natacha Rgnier and Charles Berling star in the French Film Festival's presentation of How I Killed My Father.