Last year French courts wrote presumably the last chapter in what’s known as l’affaire Le Roux. But don’t count on it. The question remains: did Maurice Agnelet kill or have a part in killing twenty-eight-year-old heiress Agnès La Roux in 1977? It took three trials to finally sentence Agnelet, 76, for a crime based on evidence that, according to this American skeptic, looks no more than circumstantial, thanks to the way he persuaded Agnès, his lover at the time, to vote against her mother Renée (Catherine Deneuve) at a board meeting, thus permitting the ailing casino of which Renée was in charge to pass to Dominique Fratoni, who may have had mafia connections.
Watching In the Name of My Daughter, the audience is no closer to knowing the truth. That’s the good news. Andre Téchiné has in fact never moved with such confidence over such a sweep of evidence; he and Hervé de Luze’s editing delineates what matters in quick bold strokes, like skilled prosecutors who know what evidence will resonate with a jury. The director of the great Wild Reeds and The Witnesses loves photographing actors in water and wood, and in Adèle Haenel he has cast an actress whose mercurial bursts of temper as Agnès darken what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the blue honey of the Mediterranean in which she loves to swim. In the Name of My Daughter is above all a sun-dappled film, redolent of a period when the Nice coastline boasted casinos carved from palazzos and no man or woman interacted with at least two packs of Marlboro Reds handy.
I said Téchiné was like a prosecutor, but he isn’t one. As in the 2012 thriller Unforgivable and the muddled The Girl on the Train from 2010, Téchiné demonstrates his fealty to the Jean Renoir school of dramatic presentation: “The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons.” The dowager executive Renée, at home with American millionaires and bullshitting over omelets and wine with her Italian chauffeur, is remote as both businesswoman and mother, but “remote” doesn’t mean unfeeling either — she’s proud, not regal. She retains Maurice as lawyer because he’s a Mr. Fix-It who reads contracts. Maurice is himself hard to read for the first third. A womanizer whose body language and comfort in his living space adduce his love for his son and home, he’s also tentative and klutzy, used to being the one pursued and still astonished when it happens. In his fuck-awful brown suits and wide collars and undistinguished features (an illustrated dictionary would publish his photo next to “bureaucrat”) he’s an unlikely object of desire. But he’s the only character who doesn’t lie to himself or others. “Don’t love me too much or I’ll freeze,” he warns Agnès at the start of their tryst. She does, and he does.
In the Name of My Daughter falters in its last third when Téchiné’s co-scenarists recreate Maurice’s trial thirty years later. I’ve read reviews criticizing the makeup as if that’s the problem (Deneuve looks fine). The movie should have ended with Agnès’ final letter, composed after a failed suicide attempt whose denouement persuades her that Maurice meant what he said about not loving him. But it’s a tribute to Adèle Haenel that Agnès isn’t presented as a spitfire. Resenting her mother for not treating her enough as an adult to give her the casino shares she’s wanted to buy a collectibles shop, infuriated that she’s needed on the casino governing board as a permanent vote on Renee’s side, Agnès is smart enough to keep her distance from the politics but too confident in her ability to survive an affair with a man who insists — sensibly — on holding her to the terms to which they agreed at the start; she’s a woman who knows she should know better. Her director doesn’t define her through expository dialogue; she’s a whirling dervish. From the first scene, when she orders Maurice to stop the car at the beach so she can take a late afternoon dip, snatching a lit cigarette from his mouth, to an interpretative “African” dance in the shop (shades of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim), she’s pure kinetics. From the proximity of his camera Téchiné must love her.
A veteran of Téchiné movies like My Favorite Season, Catherine Deneuve owns the part of an unassuming woman of the world. These days she’s an actress instead of a fascinating camera object, but she hasn’t forgotten that she is a fascinating camera object. Starting with Kings and Queen and continuing through Potiche and On My Way, she’s been the least pampered and least affected diva in modern movies. I love how she hasn’t given up smoking and drinking heavily; she’s a bawd. As Renée, Deneuve gives a study of a career woman of mediocre talent who has glided on charm and who might have been more than that fifteen years later. Lighting cigarette after cigarette (Deneuve may accept parts that allow her to smoke in character), dressed in sumptuous apricot garnished with black ivory necklaces, she looks ravishing, and, more surprisingly, she makes her affection for Agnès clear from their first scene: she can’t resist petting her head or pulling her against her breast. If the troublesome last quarter has any power, she gets the credit.
Téchiné gives Deneuve her own spontaneous outburst. On her desultory last ride from the casino to her home she and Maurice sing along to an Italian version of “Stand By Me” on the radio. In the Name of My Daughter is full of sequences like this. A shame about that last quarter — maybe audiences can walk out? I suspect it will matter less on second viewing.