Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review: "In the Name of My Daughter"

"In the Name of My Daughter" is based on the true story of the disappearance of a young French casino heiress, which became a famous legal case when her lawyer and lover was put on trial nearly 30 years later for her murder.

But the film is less concerned with the legal finagling than the human emotions that preceded it. The great Catherine Deneuve plays the mother Renée Le Roux, a strong and capable woman who feels powerless to help the daughter who keeps pushing her away. Adèle Haenel is Agnès Le Roux, a wild spirit who seems to flit between utter disdain for those around her and extreme passions.

Guillaume Canet plays Maurice Agnelet, who was Renée's right-hand man and lackey, and gradually shifted his allegiances from mother to daughter. He's by far the most interesting character, a shallow man who pretends at great depths, a terrible attorney who excelled best at getting women to fall in love with them -- but not return their ardor.

Haenel may not be a familiar name on these shores, but she's one of France's top young actresses, already nominated several times for their equivalent of the Oscar at age 26. With her emotive sea-green eyes and rough beauty, she makes Adèle a compelling, yet mysterious, figure.

As the story opens in the mid-1970s, madame Le Roux takes over the administration of the Palais, the elegant casino left to her by her deceased husband. Things are not going well, the operation is losing money, and shadowy competitors -- purportedly with mafia ties -- are circling.

Meanwhile, Adèle returns home after spending years in Africa and a failed marriage. Maurice is dispatched to handle her divorce and help her get settled back in, and they strike up a curious friendship. They both rely on Renée for their livelihood and resent her for it. The elder Le Roux, for her part, is hardly a bad person -- she's adored by her underlings at the Palais -- but she's so used to being at the center of things that the wants of others seem small and distant.

Director André Téchiné has made several movies with Deneauve, and knows how to use her timeless beauty and regal bearing to maximum effect. He also co-wrote the screenplay, which was based on a book written by the real-life Renée Le Roux along with her son (who, strangely, is not depicted in the movie at all).

The film's strongest sections involve the hot-and-cold romance between Adèle and Maurice. He is smooth and charming in the oh-so-French way, but emotionally he's just not there. He openly carries on affairs with other women, with Adèle's knowledge, and hates it when people want more than sex and erstwhile companionship.

In love, it's been said that some people are buyers and some are just renters. Maurice wants to come and go in Adèle's life without even the bother of a lease.

One thing European filmmakers do better than us Yanks is understand the mystery of attraction and affairs, the way one person can bedazzle another without even meaning to. Wherever else that may lead them, the enigma of that first spark is succulently savored by the French.

The movie slows down dreadfully in the final act, an abrupt shift to 2005 when Renée Le Roux has used all her remaining wealth and influence to bring a criminal case against Maurice, who has since fled to Panama with her daughter's fortune. It's a puzzle since her body was never found, so how can it be known if she was actually murdered?

I get the sense that Téchiné was simply not as interested in this part of the story, and should have better left the denouement to title cards. Instead, we get a courtroom sequence that eats up a  lot of screen time without adding much to the tale's emotional punch. Luckily, that which came before lingers.

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