How I Killed My Father, The: Anne Fontaine’s Family Melodrama, Starring Vet French Actor Michel Bouquet

(French title: Comment J’ai Tue Mon Pere)

(aka The Way I Killed My Father)

Veteran French actor Michel Bouquet renders such an astounding performance in How I Killed My Father, Anne Fontaine’s family melodrama, that he elevates the entire picture way above its excessively Freudian foundations.

Bouquet plays a neglectful father, whose sudden return bears devastating effects on his two sons (one played by French star Charles Berling) and daughter-in-law (the beautiful Natacha Regnier, who made strong impression in “The Dream Life of Angels”).

Showing both technical progress and greater emotional maturity, the new film by Anne Fontaine, who earlier made the well-received Dry Cleaning (also with Berling) and Augustin, King of Kung Fu, deserves to be seen on the big screen beyond French and other Euro locations.

Established gerontologist Jean-luc (Berling) appears to be the perfect professional and family man. Running a private clinic in Versailles that specializes in anti-aging treatment, he’s sensitive to his patients and a well-respected citizen for his communal services. Back at home, after a long working day, he’s greeted by a seemingly loving and elegant wife (Regnier). Upon being honored for contribution to his field, Jean-Luc decides to throws a party at the lush garden of his house. All goes well until a stranger, Maurice (Bouquet), who introduces himself as Jean-Luc’s father, appears out of the blue.

As co-writer and director, Fontaine continues to be intrigued by the paradigm of the outsider-intruder, a narrative structure that also informed her previous effort, Dry Cleaning. In that 1997 picture (which Strand released in the US), the unexpected caller who shows up in an orderly milieu only to break its rules, was a young transvestite who altered the lives of ordinary shopkeepers, ending up sleeping with both of them in a most bizarre menage a trois.

In How I Kill My Father, which is a denser, more resonant film, the intruder is a father, who inexplicably deserted his wife and two sons where they were very young. In fact, the younger son, Patrick (Guillon), who hardly remembers his dad, writes obsessive, comic-tragic monologues about the traumatic experience, which he performs in night clubs to semi-appreciative patrons.

Seemingly enjoying all the visible signs of success–a trophy wife, luxurious lifestyle, occupational prestige–it’s Jean-Luc who feels the most the pain and anger caused by his father’s sudden disappearance and now just as impulsive return. At a loss, he doesn’t know how to deal with him, and a series of dramatic confrontations leads to a shocking climax that can’t be disclosed. In contrast to her husband, Isa (Regnier) becomes fond of Maurice, spending a lot of time with him in intimate tete-a-tete sessions that even suggest slight erotic tension, despite their family roles and age difference.

Gradually, Jean-Luc emerges as a genuinely tragic hero, a self-absorbed, emotionally damaged man, who has deceived himself and others by building a wall around himself. Thematically and visually, Fontaine is effective at showing how a seemingly balanced world can deteriorate into a prison, which applies to Jean-Luc’s huge house, neat clinic, where he carries on with his young assistant, and finally, a secluded apartment he rents for his mistress.

It’s a rarity in American cinema to have a father who has no paternal feelings and, what’s more, doesn’t feel guilty or apologetic for deserting his family. In bits and pieces, almost like a puzzle, scripters Fieschi and Fontaine construct a complex portrait of a man, who one day, practicably on the verge of committing suicide, decided to go to Africa and do philantropical work there as a doctor-mentor. One of his African proteges, sort of a surrogate son, appears late in the story, causing envy and more friction between Maurice and his children.

Fontaine’s psychology may be excessively and simplistically Freudian in her contrast of the conscious versus the subconscious and unconscious, and in her presentation of the eternal conflict between id, ego, and superego. The whole yarn unfolds as an intense tug-of-war between father and sons, between the two brothers (the inferior Patrick serves as Jean-Luc’s driver), between husband and wife–and within each member of the quartet of characters. Fortunately, the psychological issue are developed and integrated within the framework of an emotionally engaging, well-acted family melodrama. Most viewers will be able to relate to the intergenerational conflict, the strain between the spouses over the issue of whether to have children, and the revelations of dark family secrets.

While the entire ensemble is excellent, How I Killed belongs to vet thespian Bouquet, whose half a century stage and screen career has included appearances in films by Truffaut, Chabrol, and other major directors. By turns charismatic and authoritative, strong yet vulnerable, Bouquet, who’s center-screen nearly the entire time, gives a tour-de-farce, multi-shaded performance rarely seen anymore even in French movies.