The 2015 novel, Professions du père by Sorj Chalandon, is the inspiration for this latest film, whose French title is the same as the book’s, from director Jean-Pierre Améris.
Evocatively shot in the city of Lyon in eye pleasing colours but with the authentic 40 watt bulb look in domestic scenes of the ‘60s era when the film is set, this drama focusses on the damaging relationship between 11 year old asthmatic Émile Choulans (Jules Lefebvre) and his controlling, uber critical and dominant father André whose mercurial nature is utterly embodied by Benoît Poelvoorde.
Anyone who remembers Paul McCartney’s song That Was Me will know that in the lyrics he lists his key life experiences from childhood onwards, much of which is recorded in the public domain. Conversely, the character André Choulans invents an inflated history of himself at every turn. He claims to be a parachutist; a superb tenor; a key member of a secret organisation with a hot line to Presidents de Gaulle and Kennedy no less. The reality is that he is an unemployed man with a fragile ego who lives in an apartment owned by his wife’s parents, a fact that affronts him and triggers his frequent irrational and violent outbursts. A child has no real compass to the world so Émile, superbly captured by young Jules Lefebvre, idolises him and is open to his dangerous influence. The boy is bullied by classmates when he is forced to wear a gaudy jumper that had belonged to his father on his last day at school before the holidays.
When a new boy, Lucas Biglioni (Tom Lévy), joins Émile’s class, where he is instantly taunted for being a pied-noir, the name given to French settlers in Algeria, the pair strike up a friendship. Émile’s absorption of his father’s fantasies and confusion with reality means he has the ability to manipulate the vulnerable Lucas to be part of a ‘mission’. What starts with chalking walls with a right wing slogan ends with what should have been no more than an elaborate boys’ game tipping precariously in to the real adult world with dire consequences for the boys, although very different for each.
Émile’s mother Denise (Audrey Dana) is as much a victim of this puffed up, deluded man as her son but always finds it easier to make allowances for him than confront his outrageous behaviour and hair trigger temper. Her collusion plays no small part in Émile’s reverence for his father despite her own diminution by André that is as painful to watch as it is credibly portrayed by Dana. Despite everything, she stays in denial, the scales never falling off her eyes to the end even when the now adult Émile, whose innate talent for drawing turns out to be his saviour, counters her stubborn blind spot.
Jean-Pierre Améris has created a thoroughly absorbing, complex film, exposing the danger of being detached from glaring reality, with enormous style.