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SPEAK, MEMORY
by Howard Schumann

My last recollection of my father was the look on his face after I placed him in a nursing home in Miami, Florida. He was wracked by Parkinson’s disease and heart trouble, and I was saddened by how far removed he was from the authoritarian and emotionally distant man I feared when I was young. Yet a lifetime of resentment could not be entirely forgotten. Indeed, in our society the pressure to love our fathers no matter how awful their behavior is so strong that it often leaves children deeply conflicted. Anand Tucker’s When Did You Last See Your Father? is a film about such conflict, though it does not question the underlying bond of love. Based on the autobiography by British writer Blake Morrison, with a screenplay by David Nicholls, the film’s title asks the question “when” but seeks an answer that requires more than a date. It asks for the last time in your life when you really saw your father, not as an authority figure but as a complete human being, the complex individual that you may have never seen before.

The film charts the relationship between Doctor Arthur Morrison (Jim Broadbent) and his son Blake (Colin Firth), a writer, over a period of thirty years. As his dad lies dying of cancer, Blake is reminded of their difficult relationship. Using mirrors to suggest there are many different angles with which to view life, Tucker catches events in Blake’s past that remain with him and threaten to keep father and son apart at a moment when they clearly need each other. Through extensive flashbacks showing Blake as a child, teenager, and adult, the film allows us to understand how events, both small and large, took on mass as the years went by. It makes clear that while Arthur was a devoted father, he was not above being overbearing, deceitful and duplicitous, especially regarding his infidelities with Aunt Beaty (Sarah Lancashire), an open secret in the household, though one that his wife (Juliet Stevenson) came to accept. Stevenson is outstanding in her role of the suffering partner who tries to make up for her husband’s aloofness by giving the children her unconditional love.

In flashbacks, we see the eight-year old Blake (Bradley Johnson) seeing his father flaunting the rules by waving his stethoscope to get to the front of a queue waiting to enter a sports event; the fifteen-year-old Blake (Matthew Beard) putting up with his father’s whimsy during a camping trip that left them soaked but liberated by driving lessons on the beach; and his annoyance when his father, who called him “fathead”, walked in on his first sexual awakening with a live-in-maid (Elaine Cassidy). We see the adult Blake (Colin Firth) recalling how his father refused to acknowledge his award of a literary prize at a gala, and then had the nerve to call writing poetry “not a real job.”

When Did You Last See Your Father? is a lyrical tone poem that is marked by brilliant performances. An honest and unsentimental film, it brings dignity to the subject of family relationships and has a powerful conclusion that left much of the audience, including myself, in tears. The best performances are by Matthew Beard as the sensitive but self-righteous adolescent who is hard put to give his father the benefit of the doubt, and by Jim Broadbent as the overbearing but loving father. As the final days play out, the quality of Broadbent’s performance is such that, while we understand Blake’s misgivings, we can still see Arthur as a complex individual with both flaws and virtues. Blake still longs for his father’s acceptance and, as his father lies dying, asks him: "It would be good to talk at some point, wouldn't it?" Yet the answer, "What about?" underscores the superficial banter that replaces conversation in many households.

*****

A serial killer is on the loose in the vicinity of Paris, described on radio broadcasts as a magician who lures women with magic tricks. Meanwhile, a young woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana), is dumped at a gas station by her fiancé on the way to her parent’s farm in the French Alps. Stalked by an intriguing older man (Dominique Pinon) who is also a magician, she accepts a ride with him to the South of France. Who is this strange-looking unshaven man whose eyes are unreadable? Is he the serial killer? A lonely man looking for a pickup? The teacher whose distraught wife has notified the police about his disappearance? Or perhaps a writer in search of a character and a plot?

And why is Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), a phenomenally successful novelist, being questioned by the French police about the disappearance of her secretary? These questions and many more tantalize us in Claude Lelouch’s playfully intense thriller Roman de Gare, a film with more twists and turns than California Highway 1 at Big Sur. Our first impressions of Huguette are not positive, though Dana is quite impressive in her first feature role. After a very slow fade out, we find ourselves speeding along a French highway. Traveling with her excitable fiancé Paul (Cyrille Eldin) to visit her parents and teenage daughter, the young woman, who is either a hairdresser or a hooker or both, makes life miserable for her lover.

Smoking non-stop, self-pitying, whiny, and, in her own descriptive phrase, acting like an “airhead,” Huguette drives Paul to the breaking point. Though he tries to remain calm, he finally abandons her at a gas station and unceremoniously drives off. Huguette is now subject to the whims of Pierre Laclos (Pinon), the mysterious stranger who asks her repeatedly if she wants a ride even though she tells him to please leave her alone. After many hours, the young woman relents and asks him to drive her to her parent’s farm in the French Alps and, to save face, to pretend to be the fiancé who dumped her. The scenes in which Pierre attempts to convince her mother (Myriam Boyer) that he is a doctor and they are in fact lovers expecting to be married (there is a trumped up sex scene with a lot of heavy breathing) are very funny, especially since the mother is a suspicious sort who questions everything, including why she does not know her supposed fiancé’s cellphone number.

Roman de Gare translates as "airport novel," a book you might read on a trip and then toss when you arrive at your destination, but the film is more than just lighthearted fluff. It is a smart and very enjoyable suspense caper that is about pretenses and appearances and who we really are behind our masks. (Lelouche states in an interview that we put too much emphasis on looks in relating to one another). In the film no one is who he or she seems to be. Pierre tells Huguette that he is Judith Ralitzer’s ghostwriter, then denies it, though he claims to be driving her car. As in most films of this ilk, when all the pieces of the puzzle are in place, the end result is not half as intriguing as the process of trying to fit it together. Yet, Lelouch, Oscar winner for A Man and a Woman, has fashioned a tale of intrigue and deceit with a vibrant energy that bubbles along with the style of a plot-driven Hitchcockian film of the sixties. I was half expecting Cary Grant or Grace Kelly to show up.


©2008 Howard Schumann
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