A drama about a warmly maternal Frenchwoman wrestling with the discovery that her beloved grandson is a convert to the Islamic State would seem ripe with potential for raw personal conflict. But the charged emotional spontaneity and nonjudgmental curiosity for complex human relations that have invigorated Andre Techine’s best work remain disappointingly muffled in Farewell to the Night, as the generic title might suggest. The director returns to his frequent muse Catherine Deneuve, but she seems stiff and miscast as a salt-of-the-earth horse ranch owner, stuck in a baggy script that struggles to build momentum into its fraught situations.
It’s interesting that while the key relationship in the screenplay by Techine and Lea Mysius is between Muriel (Deneuve) and her radicalized grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein), the scenes in which Deneuve is at her best and the drama at its most sensitive are her encounters with a generous stranger.
Oddly ineffectual considering the explosive subject matter.
In the film’s standout performance, Kamel Labroudi plays Fouad, a soulful young father who fought with terrorist forces in Syria for a brief period before regretting his youthful impulsiveness and returning to France, serving time and now attempting to reintegrate into society. Fouad’s story, and his willingness to help desperate Muriel even at the cost of reopening a painful chapter from his past, finds shadings missing elsewhere in the drama, picking up the recurring theme in Techine’s films of French-Arab cultural cross-pollination.
Farewell to the Night opens with the blunt metaphor of a solar eclipse and abounds with representations of nature that provide a counterpoint backdrop to the dehumanizing choices made by Alex and his childhood sweetheart Lila (Oulaya Amamra) as they transition into adulthood. It’s set during the first five days of spring 2015 on and around an estate in the rural southwest run by Muriel with her North African business partner Youssef (Mohamed Djouhri), a ranch that includes an equestrian school, a cherry tree orchard in glorious blossom and earth rich in truffles and porcini mushrooms that attract wild boars.
Alex, like Lila, considers himself an orphan. His mother died in a diving accident for which he blames his father, who has resettled in Guadeloupe and started a new family. He obstinately rejects his grandmother’s suggestions that he should reach out and get to know his half-siblings.
There are hints of a troubled recent period in Alex’s life that caused him to drop out of med school in Toulouse, but when he comes to visit his grandmother before taking off on a working trip abroad, supposedly to Canada, he evinces a fierce sense of purposeful identity. He attributes this to his Muslim conversion eight months earlier, a development Muriel is startled to learn about when she spies him praying in the garden. He’s brittle and closed-off in response to her questions, displaying a coldness she perhaps puts down to growing pains and to lingering anger over the loss of his mother.
The script makes no effort to conceal the true nature of Alex and Lila’s plan, revealing early on that they have been coordinating travel arrangements with ISIS recruiter Bilal (Stephane Bak), and that they need to raise a substantial amount of cash to finance Alex’s combat training and weapons purchase. He’s anxious to get to the front, and when he asks Lila how she would feel if he died, she responds without hesitation: “I would be proud.” While Alex shows no qualms about stealing from Muriel, it’s Lila who justifies forging checks to lift 6,000 euros from her company bank account, pointing out that Alex’s grandmother is an infidel, which means it’s not a sin.
When Youssef alerts Muriel to the missing money, pegging the theft to her grandson, she searches Alex’s bags and finds his travel itinerary, not to Canada as he said, but from Barcelona to Istanbul, the standard gateway to the Syrian border for radical Islam converts out of France. Putting two and two together, she takes a series of steps — some drastic, bordering on preposterous, others more considered — to stop him from leaving.
There’s a nagging lack of fluidity in the scene-to-scene progression. In one particularly clunky juxtaposition, editor Albertine Lastera cuts between a lunch during which Youssef’s family celebrates an equestrian win and one of the young women at the table bursts into a raunchy dance to Western pop, and a clandestine jihad gathering, with Alex in white robes receiving instruction from an Islamic preacher (Amer Alwan, who developed the story idea with Techine), while Lila, seen wearing a hijab for the first time, chats excitedly with another young woman just back from Syria.
Klein takes the watchful intensity he displayed in Techine’s Being 17 to almost feral extremes here in a performance that reveals only the tiniest glimpses of the insecure kid beneath the rigid facade, notably when he’s writing a farewell note to his grandmother. The urgency with which Alex has immersed himself in his new persona is signaled in sequences where Julien Hirsch’s camera goes hurtling along beside him through the cherry groves or on mountain roads. But Alex’s radicalization is already complete when the film begins, so there’s no pathos in his ideological transformation. And despite the script sketching in all kinds of reasons his rootlessness would make him vulnerable, there’s scant insight into what attracts Western youths to jihadism.
In an attempt to be even-handed, Amamra plays up the contrast between her tough arrogance and the softness she brings to her work as a care-giver at a retirement home. (Techine veteran Jacques Nolot appears briefly as one of her employers.) Even Bilal shows fissures in his aloof authority, sneaking cigarettes in a habit he dismisses as a vestige of the corrupt Western ways he’s leaving behind.
But despite the melancholy beauty of Alexis Rault’s score, all this generates surprisingly little feeling, even in what should be the suspenseful start of the radicals’ journey as the extent of Muriel’s final intervention remains in doubt. The emotional cost to her is spelled out in clinical terms inadequately foreshadowed in Deneuve’s performance. Only in her scenes with Fouad is there a moving sense, beneath the semi-formality of strangers, of two people touched in different ways by the same sociopolitical phenomenon, forging a meaningful connection based on empathy and compassion. That’s the part that feels like a Techine movie.
Production companies: Curiosa Films, Bellini Films, Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte, Legato Films, Films Boutique
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Kacey Mottet Klein, Oulaya Amamra, Stephane Bak, Kamel Labroudi, Mohamed Djouhri, Amer Alwan, Jacques Nolot
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriters: Andre Techine, Lea Mysius, based on an original idea by Techine and Amer Alwan
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Executive producer: Christine de Jekel
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Music: Alexis Rault
Editor: Albertine Lastera
Casting: Michel Nasri
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: France TV Distribution