Jean-Luc (Charles Berling) is a successful gerontologist, the kind of fashionable practitioner who’s less interested in easing his upper-crust clientele into their senior years than profiting from their vanity and anxiety about aging. He has all the usual accouterments of wealth, including a beautiful young wife, Isa (Natacha Regnier). But whatever contentment he’s achieved in life is severely shaken when his long-estranged father one day appears. The father, Maurice (Michel Bouquet), had abandoned his family some 30 years earlier, never explaining why and severing all contacts. Now he arrives like a ghost: literally, on the heels of a telegram that Jean-Luc has received saying that the old man recently died in Africa; and figuratively, as an apparition from the distant past whose presence is as mysterious as his disappearance was.
At first Maurice seems slightly sinister. With his thin-lipped smile and glittering eyes he’s an unnerving and watchful presence, who gives the impression that he’s liable to pounce at any minute and reveal his true colors. But mostly he’s a mocking presence to Jean-Luc. For while Maurice has been working in the African bush, bringing succor to Third World suffering, Jean-Luc has been injecting Botox into the idle rich. He’s also someone who has accepted life’s harshness with a certain philosophical grace, a marked contrast to Jean-Luc’s cocoon of unhappy withdrawal.
In fact, Jean-Luc turns out to be something of a major asshole, cheating on his wife and falsely convincing her, according to his professional opinion, that she’s unable to have children. And while some of his emotional blockage can be blamed on his father’s abandonment — it’s understandable that he would be afraid to raise a family — he’s also the type of person who nurtures an early wound with perverse persistence, turning it onto a crutch, a shield, and a general way of avoiding the hazards of feeling.
Directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine (who also made Dry Cleaning), How I Killed My Father is a bleak little drama about a hardened man who is given a chance at self-examination, if not redemption, when visited by a spirit from the past. It’s A Christmas Carol with only one ghost and no jolly seasonal songs. It’s also low-key to the point, at times, of being soporific, but it benefits greatly from the presence of Bouquet, a veteran actor who has worked with Chabrol and Truffaut and who manages to make Maurice seem simultaneously enigmatic, sympathetic and a little foolish. We’re left with the feeling that leaving his family may have been unconscionable but it wasn’t necessarily unforgivable.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 27. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.