Maddened by His Absence or an impossible mourning
by Bénédicte Prot
- In her first fiction film, actress Sandrine Bonnaire directs William Hurt as a father maddened by his child’s death and unable to accept that he is no longer someone’s father.
Maddened by His Absence [+see also:
film profile], actress Sandrine Bonnaire’s first fiction film as a director (after the documentary about her sister Her Name is Sabine [+see also:
film profile]) recently screened in Cannes as part of the Critics’ Week, starts with the end of a life. After his French father dies, Jacques (William Hurt), whose mother is American, crosses the Atlantic Ocean after eight years of absence to pack up his belongings and sell his big house. He has come over to settle inheritance issues, but he ends up confronting unresolved pain, the nature of which we understand when he sees his ex-wife Mado (Alexandra Lamy) again. Her blue gaze, like Jacques’, remains veiled by an impossible, lasting emptiness. Eight years ago, they lost their four-year-old son Mathieu in a car accident while Jacques was driving.
Although Mado remarried and has a second child, Paul, who is 7 years old (played by the great Jalil Mehenni, who has grey-green eyes like his father), Jacques, who is an architect, has not rebuilt his life. The silence, that is almost like having forgotten Mathieu, eats away at both of them. As nobody talks to her about him, it’s as if he had never existed, she says. Jacques says that after 30 years of living in France, now that his family belongings are in boxes, “Nothing is left except for a little bed of white granite.” And a plastic box in Mado’s cellar, out of which pokes the nose of a small dog teddybear, packed in with a few other of the child’s belongings.
Mado does not tell her husband about these visits from the man that she still knows so well, and makes her son Paul, who Jacques wanted to meet, promise to keep the secret too. However, the film’s great secret is not this, but rather what Jacques then tells Paul: Whereas Paul thinks that Jacques has come to see his mother, “It’s really you that I came to see.” A secret relationship between the man and child then starts to develop in the cellar, where the belongings of the little boy who Paul now calls his “little brother” are kept. Growing closer, they invent their own rituals (passing each other keys, time tables... ) and secret language (using signs and Jacques’ mother tongue).
The most beautiful aspect of this film is the simplicity with which Paul accepts for Jacques to act like a father again without judging him, because he instinctively understands his need, as is very poetically illustrated in the little boy’s very first glance towards him when they go to the circus with Mado, and when he gives him a drawing of a man in a house with cobwebs around him, to represent the words coming out of his head, he says. While Jacques, who becomes a recluse in the cellar, "rids himself" of all reality except for his fatherhood (the one he has lost, and the one he is reliving), Paul becomes the fierce guardian of this man and his secret, until it becomes too unbearable.
The path that Jacques seems to take in the beginning does not lead him to any form of reconciliation, but rather sinks him into an incurable “illness” that everybody can and wants to understand, but which should not detract from the fact that, first and foremost, it is the child that needs protecting. Jacques has lost it all, and there is no cure. In the end, this film about mourning really isn’t one, because it is impossible to move beyond the absence at the heart of Maddened by His Absence. "This little piggy...", as goes the nursery rhyme that he teaches Paul, will never find “the way home".
(Translated from French)
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