Over the past five years, French actor Felix Moati has made a name for himself playing the lead in artsy dramedies like All About Them, Some Like it Veiled and Gaspard at the Wedding. Skinny, pale as a ghost and sporting a perpetual five o’clock shadow, he’s often cast as a clever if rather naive 20-something loser, gradually winning us over with his studied innocence and nonchalant charms.
It’s this combination, plus a touch of true melancholy, that Moati brings to his promising debut as a director, Father & Sons (Deux fils), which follows a family of three men facing three distinct existential crises. The father, Joseph (Benoit Poelvoorde), just lost his brother, which has prompted him to give up a successful medical career and write his first novel. The older son, Joachim (Vincent Lacoste), is still reeling from a breakup that’s thwarted his plans for a PhD in psychiatry. And the 12-year-old, Ivan (Mathieu Capella), is going through his very first spells of adolescent angst, rebelling against his school, his brother and his dad all at once.
A touchingly funny and well observed debut.
Moati juggles this trio of characters and troubled trajectories with plenty of care — as well as with enough flashes of humor to keep his gloomy Paris-set movie surprisingly light. In a field of French comedies that’s often divided between buffoonish commercial fare and naval-gazing auteurism, he manages to finds a welcome middle ground that could entice art-house distributors throughout Europe and beyond.
Shot in a jazzy handheld haze by veteran lenser Yves Angelo (Colonel Chabert, Un Coeur en Hiver), the film begins with Joseph and his sons attending a funeral, after which the grieving father falls into a long funk he can only alleviate by becoming the next Tolstoy (he makes the comparison). In one of the movie’s more excruciating sequences, Joseph gives a reading of his work-in-progress that’s pretty much a public humiliation, although he’s so unaware of himself he hardly seems to notice.
Joachim and Ivan, on the other hand, are fully aware of their dad’s state of mind, and they don’t know how to handle him. There’s a heartbreaking scene toward the end of the film where they listen through the door as Joseph tells a random girlfriend how much he loves his children, and how much pain they have caused him (we learn that his wife left soon after the birth of Ivan). It’s one of the best performances that Belgian comic star Poelvoorde has given in this recent stretch of his career, with Joseph constantly oscillating between tender emotion and a frustrating kind of aloofness.
Lacoste, who has evolved from gross-out teen comedies to artsy dramas (especially in two excellent French releases from last year, Christophe Honore’s Sorry Angel and Mikhael Hers’ underseen Amanda), plays Joachim as a bittersweet anti-hero who tries to save his dad on the sly. He keeps pleading with Joseph’s editor (Patrick d’Assumçao) to publish a manuscript that seems to be entirely unreadable, refusing to let his father fail, even if his own academic career is in the doldrums. He also strikes up a romance with his brother’s Latin tutor, Esther (Anais Demoustier), but their love story is clouded when memories of Joachim’s ex keep popping back into the picture.
Most of Father & Sons is told through the perspective of Ivan, the youngest — though by far not the most immature — of the three. Perfectly embodied by newcomer Capella, Ivan does what he can to escape the authority of his older brother and the unruliness of his dad. But the two never seem to leave him alone, wandering into his bedroom in the middle of the night to smoke cigarettes or complain about their lives, or both. (Many of the film’s key scenes take place between the hours of midnight and 6am, when everyone’s feelings are laid bare by bouts of anxiousness and insomnia.)
All three plotlines eventually intersect in a way that feels organic to the characters, with Moati never laying the jokes or the drama on too thick. He maintains a playfully downtrodden tone throughout Father & Sons that’s reminiscent of early Truffaut, Woody Allen’s work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and James Gray’s Two Lovers — the latter in the claustrophobic apartment and urban settings (the movie takes place in the dense Right Bank neighborhood of République). When Joseph and his sons finally emerge from their emotional tempest, they seem to be less shaken by it than stirred. They’ll probably keep being who they are, but at least they’ve become a tad more self-aware.
Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, France 3 Cinema, Artemis Productions
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Benoit Poelvoorde, Mathieu Capella, Anais Demoustier, Noemie Lvovsky, India Hair, Patrick D’Assumcao
Director: Felix Moati
Screenwriter: Felix Moati, in collaboration with Florence Seyvos
Producer: Pierre Guyard
Executive producer: Eve Francois Machuel
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Julia Lemaire
Costume designer: Noemie Veissier
Editor: Simon Birman
Casting director: Elsa Pharaon
Sales: Le Pacte