How I Killed My Father
The comfortable, regimented life of a prosperous gerontologist comes unraveled when his estranged father pays an unexpected and prolonged visit.
Jean-Luc is a successful 40-year-old gerontologist with a busy practice in Paris and a gorgeous home he shares with his lovely wife, Isa, in the posh suburb of Versailles. One evening at a lavish gala on their estate to celebrate a medal the city is bestowing on Jean-Luc, his father, Maurice--who had been practicing medicine in Africa--unexpectedly shows up. Jean-Luc is extremely ambivalent about this visit because he hardly knows the man who abandoned him when he was young and may even harbor deep wounds caused by the estrangement. Jean-Luc's younger brother Patrick, a loser and wannabe entertainer who works for Jean-Luc as his chauffeur, is indifferent to Maurice because he had even less contact with his father than did Jean-Luc. But Isa, immediately drawn to the old man, invites him to stay in an attic room. As Jean-Luc attempts to continue with life as usual, certain problems become evident. His sex life with Isa is wanting while he is secretly carrying on with his assistant Myriem. Isa has difficulty sleeping and also longs for children but apparently is unable to become pregnant, in spite of the medication to remedy this that Jean-Luc provides. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc grows more and more irritated with Maurice, whose activities in Africa grow suspect and who has actually shown up in order to borrow money. Their exchanges, which become heated and even violent, reveal that the son may be every bit as selfish and manipulative as his father. At least Maurice is able to render a service to Isa by making her aware of his son's underhanded treatment of her.
How I Killed My Father is worth seeing just for the performance of Michel Bouquet, one of the greatest of living French screen actors, in his role of Maurice, the quietly bedeviled maverick father. Charles Berling as the accomplished, but bitter, son is wholly convincing but has the challenging job of portraying a largely unappealing and cold character. Natacha Regnier is touching as the beautiful, pained wife Isa. But Stephane Guillon, whose dopey Patrick is often seen mugging the camera in monologues or other shtick, assumes too much of a low-class manner to ever convince that he's in any way related to the other men.
Co-writer and director Anne Fontaine, whose remarkable Dry Cleaning was overlooked during its brief stay in theaters a few years ago, delivers an intriguing drama here. But the filmmaker's fundamental--and intentional--ambiguity plagues the entire work because she refuses to clearly set forth what is going on. On the plus side, Fontaine delivers a handsome production with fine performances, quiet pacing and bountiful close-ups that allow her characters the room to be real. But her structure, especially with scene transitions, often seems arbitrary, as if Fontaine isn't entirely sure what her characters are really up to. Fontaine frustratingly teases by never making clear when or if the estranged father dies, whether the film's story is largely the fantasy of the son or to what degree the son actually harms the old man.
How I Killed My Father, in French with English subtitles, conveys to what degree the sins of the father are passed on to the son. There are story gaps, but in between, there's compelling drama to be found.