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A father and son find their lives at fault, first at home and then on the tennis court, in the intriguing debut French drama, 40-Love (Terre battue). Written and directed by Stephane Demoustier, this realistic tale of a distraught dad – played by Olivier Gourmet (The Son) in another frenzied, sweat-stained performance – losing his job and his wife but trying to hang on to his star athlete child, offers up strong moments throughout but is not a total grand slam, either. Yet the way it weaves family life, economic woes and competitive sports into a single story is ambitious enough to warrant a look outside of Gaul and the usual Francophone playing fields.
The film was co-produced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose work seems to be an inspiration from the very first scene: an extended sequence-shot which follows hardworking chain store manager, Jerome (Gourmet), as he leaves his office after being laid off, walking out to the parking lot and into a new life.
But what seems like a chance for Jerome to start again, especially once he concocts plans to open a women’s shoe emporium for his wife, Laura (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), soon falls to pieces when his business proposal unravels and Laura leaves him for another man. All he has left is his 11-year-old son Ugo (newcomer Charles Merienne) – a boy showing considerable promise as a tennis player, and who’s recruited by a trainer (Jean-Yves Berteloot) hoping to send him to the big leagues.
While Jerome is a caring father, he’s not exactly your typical little league dad. He hardly invests in Ugo’s career, bringing him late to matches and letting his sour mood disrupt the household. Demoustier’s script (written in collaboration with Gabrielle Mace) avoids the usual cliche of the overzealous parent pushing their child too far, but runs into some trouble later on when Ugo makes a life-changing decision that doesn’t seem entirely justified by what we’ve seen beforehand. Still, the way the filmmakers find parallels between a father falling from grace, and a son rising toward it, are captivating enough, even if the domestic squabbles between Jerome and Laura often look like they were lifted out of an afterschool special.
Reprising a role we’ve seen him do many times before, Gourmet once again plays a man whose livelihood is on the line at all times, the actor frantically moving through the frame like a wild boar hiding from a pack of hunters. Yet Jerome also has his moments of grace, especially when he visits the banal strip malls that he’s built his career upon. The young Merienne is excellent as a pint-sized tennis pro, conveying an ambiguity that’s derailed by a few twists in the third act. In one of her less flattering parts, Bruni Tedeschi (5×2) plays a desperate housewife wearing a perpetual frown throughout most of the movie, and the failed marriage plot between Laura and Jerome never quite convinces.
Tech credits stick close to the realistic side, with cinematographer Julien Poupard (Camera d’Or winner Party Girl) capturing the suburban setting with lots of natural light. Indeed, Demoustier already made a documentary about tweenage tennis players last year, and he aptly stages the various face-offs between Ugo and his rivals, relying on the kind of shot-reverse shots that the great French critic Serge Daney deemed the very essence of cinema.
Production companies: Les Films Velvet, Les Films du Fleuve, Annee Zero, Arte France, RTBF (Television Belge)
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Charles Merienne, Vimala Pons, Jean-Yves Berteloot
Director: Stephane Demoustier
Screenwriter: Stephane Demoustier, in collaboration with Gaelle Mace
Producer: Frederic Jouve
Executive producer: Delphine Tomson
Director of photography: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Paul Rouschop
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Damien Maestraggi
Casting directors: Kris Portier de Bellair, Lucile Jacques, Marie-Stephane Imbert
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 95 minutes
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