You wouldn't call your movie How I Killed My Father if you didn't want to get everybody's attention. But the title turns out to be the only thing in this masterful French drama that bangs us over the head. And it, too, can be interpreted in more ways than one. For there is more than one way to kill your father. You can wrestle him to the ground and wrap your hands around his neck, as Jean-Luc (Charles Berling), a wealthy gerontologist who has a beautiful home and a beautiful wife near Versailles, appears to do toward the end of the movie. Or you can metaphorically wrestle him to the ground and wrap your hands around his neck, as Jean-Luc has been trying to do for years. But sometimes the old bastards just won't stop breathing. And even when they do, they often keep stirring in our blood, like a virus.
Jean-Luc has never understood why his father, Maurice (Michel Bouquet), who's also a doctor, took off for Africa some 30 years ago and never came back. And because he can't understand him, he can't forgive him. Further complicating things is the fact that Maurice, who suddenly reappears in Jean-Luc's life, like a stray cat that took a wrong turn and wound up back home, doesn't appear to seek forgiveness. On the contrary, he treats Jean-Luc with the same twinkle-eyed detachment he always treated him with ' a twinkle-eyed detachment that, were he not your father, you might mistake for charm, even warmth. But he is Jean-Luc's father, which is why Jean-Luc can detect the droplets of acid in Maurice's seemingly innocuous remarks. "He judges you calmly," Jean-Luc tells his wife, "down to the bone."
Director Anne Fontaine, who also co-wrote the script with Jacques Fieschi, does something similar in this psychologically astute dissection of a father-son relationship. As Jean-Luc and Maurice engage in the thrust and parry of conversation, it's never clear who we're supposed to pull for. The father who abandoned his family? The son who, the more we get to know him, seems more and more like his father? Both? Neither? It's not that Fontaine withholds judgment, it's that she administers it so calmly. This gives How I Killed My Father the dispassionate tone of a novel, where, no matter how loud somebody screams, it's just ink scratchings on a white page. Though often taken to the brink, Jean-Luc and Maurice rarely lose their tempers, delivering their respective blows with a steady gaze, even a smile. Everything happens between the lines.
"I'm not obliged to love you," Maurice finally says after he and Jean-Luc have exhausted themselves with innuendo. "It's hell being your son," Jean-Luc replies. And believe it or not, that's one of the movie's more touching moments, because Fontaine has, by that point, taken us so deeply into the enigma of love, or lack thereof, that we'll never again take for granted the ties that bind. As Maurice, Bouquet pours on the Gallic wit, completely convincing us that young women, including Jean-Luc's wife (Natacha RÃgnier), might still consider him attractive. And as Jean-Luc, Berling is a revelation, peeling back, one by one, the layers of a man who's spent his whole life both rejecting and becoming his father. The apple never falls far from the tree, but it can rot at whatever rate we choose.