Grief is picturesque. Filmmakers are fond of training their lens on it, and naturally it looks different from movie to movie. Since it’s standard for commercial movies to end happily, mainstream grief can be a tad predictable. Truly unhappy endings are the preserve of independent film, sometimes commercial movies made by auteur filmmakers, which seek to tap into a different emotional and intellectual register.
Shying away from the hysteria and sentimentality of the mainstream, art house movies tend to ruminate quietly upon their characters, to whom little happens, and who are more or less as miserable by film’s end as they were at the start. This has inspired some skeptics to argue that the emotional arc of art house film, while different from that of the mainstream, is no less predictable.
There is very little in the early stages of “J’enrage de son absence” (Maddened by his Absence) that would lead you to expect anything but a typical art house tale of grief and loneliness.
The debut feature film of French writer-director Sandrine Bonnaire is a character study of unrequited grief and the emotional wreckage it can leave in its wake. It premiered at Cannes a couple of months back, screening out of competition in the festival’s Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) program.
Though the writing and performances are generally kept close to the chest, by the time this movie ends, Bonnaire and her co-writer Jérôme Tonnerre ultimately do take you to a place you would not have expected.
The central figure, and the font of much grieving, is Jacques (William Hurt). His emotional distress is introduced early on. The camera follows a pair of little boys running through a park in mock gunplay. This roughhousing leaves one of them sprawled across the hood of a parked car. Sitting behind the wheel, Jacques’ face is a twisted mask of anxiety.
A well-heeled Franco-American architect, Jacques returns to France to settle the well-endowed estate of his deceased father. Working through this mournful business reignites another, older, source of turmoil, one he decides to revisit.
The little boy’s name is Paul (Jalil Mehenni), the son of a struggling middle class couple – Stephane (Augustin Legrand), a teacher, and Mado (Alexandra Lamy), who works in a warehouse.
Coincidentally, Jacques and Mado had been a couple a decade or so before. The main reason they broke up was the death of their son Mathieu and it is gradually revealed that Jacques remains inconsolable about the boy’s death because he had been driving the car that killed him.
Jacques seeks out Mado, which gives him the opportunity to disclose how his life in the U.S. is empty of everything but work. Later he tells her he’d like to meet her son. The three spend an afternoon together, at the end of which the man and the boy form a bond.
Mado hasn’t told her likeable husband that Jacques is back in France and she makes Paul promise not to tell his father anything, transforming a harmless thing into something poisonous.
For Jacques it’s worse. The possibility of redemption he finds in Mado’s son mingles with his complex of unresolved past and present grief to transform him from a sad depressive to a creepy obsessive. Fortunately for Bonnaire’s film, these are character traits at which the tight-lipped Hurt excels, even when he’s made to play them in French.
The pivotal moment in the film comes a little more than halfway through. Hurt’s character has wrapped up his family business, said goodbye to Mado and Paul and is on his way back to the U.S. Then he’s turned back at the airport metal detector, reaches into his pocket and pulls out the object that’s set off the alarm bells.
This would have made a fine end to the film, echoing the mundane reality that people going through emotional straits just get on with things.
Bonnaire doesn’t end her film here. Instead she uses this moment as the hinge that changes the course of the story – from the quiet composure characteristic of much independent film to something else.
The movie’s success in undermining conventional expectations is probably its principal strength.
Watching “J’enrage,” some may be reminded of another tale of loss, called “Blue.” The late-Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 film is unlike Bonnaire’s in most every respect, but its plot also happens to be concerned with the death of a child, the dissolution of a well-endowed bourgeois estate and the grieving protagonist’s discovery that her husband had a second family.
Kieslowski has his protagonist, Juliette Binoche, give her husband’s estate to his pregnant lover, the gesture that allows her to clamp the artery of her grief. As soon as you recall Kieslowski, you know Bonnaire and Tonnerre must have Hurt’s character do something similar.
They do too, but rather than allowing Jacques to find redemption in his act, they conceal his kindness in the overlapping deceptions that conceal his presence from various members of Paul’s family.
You may be surprised at where Bonnaire’s plot takes you, just as you will likely be impressed by the emotional pitch of Lamy and Hurt’s performances. Yet you may not find the film’s emotional lurch away from a plausibly unhappy ending to a less plausible one to be aesthetically convincing.
Yet it is the challenging of conventions that allows cinema to retain its artistic credentials. This is why “J’enrage de son absence” was selected for the Semaine de la Critique (SlC) and it’s in that context that the film will screen at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Monday evening, at the head of a 10-day cycle of SlC films.
SlC has run in parallel to Cannes’ main selection since 1962, devoted to showcasing the first and second films of directors from around the world. In 2012, seven feature films screened in competition, along with six non-competition features and 10 short and medium-length works.
Metropolis’ program includes five of SlC seven competition features, three of them award-winners.
Antonio Mendez Esparza’s “Aqui y alla” won the Nespresso Grand Prize. Ilian Metev’s “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” took the France 4 Visionary Award. Alejandro Fadel’s “Los salvajes” was awarded the program’s Distribution Support prize.
Louis-Do de Lencquesaing’s “Au Galop” and Vasan Bala’s “Peddlers” will also be projected, as will a pair of features that had SlC special screenings – Rufus Norriset’s “Broken” and Alice Winocour’s “Augustine.”
There will also be two evenings dedicated to short and medium-length films, including “Un Dimanche Matin” (A Sunday Morning), Damien Manivel’s Nikon Discovery Award-winner, and Juliana Rojas’ “O Duplo” (Doppelg?nger), which was given a competition special mention.
What better way to decompress after the UEFA Cup.
“J’enrage de son absence” will open the Semaine de la Critique screening cycle at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Monday evening at 8 p.m. For more information see http://www.metropoliscinema.net