'Back Home' ('Revenir'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A mixed bag that exerts a certain fascination.

Niels Schneider ('Heartbeats') and Adele Exarchopoulos ('Blue Is the Warmest Color') headline French director Jessica Palud's debut feature.

A Frenchman in his early thirties returns to the farm of his childhood in the rural family drama Back Home (Revenir), a suitably down-to-earth adaptation of a work by French novelist Serge Joncour. It is the first feature from Paris-born filmmaker Jessica Palud, a former assistant director who has worked on several features from one of France’s greatest humanist filmmakers, Philippe Lioret (Welcome, All Our Desires). Lioret actually produced the film and also co-wrote the script with Palud and mono-monikered screenwriter Diasteme (Angel Face). 

Former Xavier Dolan muse Niels Schneider (Heartbeats) and Blue Is the Warmest Color breakout Adele Exarchopoulos, who earlier this year co-starred in the Cannes competition title Sibyl, compellingly bring their sweaty, hard-shelled characters to life. But there is a sense throughout that this fleet, 77-minute tale could have used a little more nuance and depth and a smidgen less armchair-analysis-level psychology. Back Home premiered in Venice in the Horizons sidebar and should see interest from other festivals and French film week-type events, as well as from broadcasters and VOD platforms.  

In the Drome region, in southeastern France — further east than the original Lot department of the novel — agrarian families struggle to get by. But this might be news for Thomas (Schneider), who is returning to the family farm after a dozen or so years in Montreal, where he works in a restaurant. When he arrives, all the cows of his childhood are gone. In their place, he sees the cute Alex (Roman Coustere Hachez), his 6-year-old nephew whom he has never met before. Mona (Exarchopoulos), Alex’s mom, also doesn’t immediately recognize the man with the curly blond hair, though he is the older brother of Mathieu, Alex’s late father and Mona’s late boyfriend.

The early going, in which Thomas slowly immerses himself again in life at the family homestead, is beautifully written. Small conversational details convincingly sketch in the various backstories and offhandedly suggest what has changed since Thomas flew the coop all those years ago. The reason Thomas is back at all is because his aging mother, Catherine (Helene Vincent), has been hospitalized, though his hardhearted father, Michel (Patrick d’Assumcao), didn’t think that even that was reason enough for Thomas to either come back or even be told. It is not specifically addressed why Thomas never attended his brother’s funeral, but Michel’s simmering resentment and Thomas’ need to emancipate himself from his overbearing father both come through loud and clear, especially when one takes into consideration that it is a country-life tradition for the eldest son (in this case, Thomas) to take over the family farm. Instead, the bum left for faraway Canada. To work in a restaurant. 

Unfortunately, this pleasingly dense, novelistic approach becomes more diluted as the story progresses. Firstly, there’s the awkward handling of the revelations surrounding Mathieu’s death. Palud hasn’t made a thriller or mystery but even for a straightforward drama the handling of these narrative puzzle pieces is awkward and done with little subtlety. At one point, one of the neighbors simply decides to tell Thomas the truth in an overly didactic speech that gives viewers little sense of why the speaker needs to get it off his chest other than the screenplay’s requirement to let viewers know what happened in the past.

To make matters worse, it is revealed that Michel became involved in local politics for a far-right party, which is explained with a curt “Your dad wasn’t a real fascist, he only felt abandoned by everyone,” a statement that cries out for more context and nuance. The one thing that does constantly percolate in the background is how the farming business has changed over the years, with Mathieu having decided to borrow (too much) money and increase in scale, while his neighbors decided to go organic, which turned out to be the better bet. But these changes to the fabric of rural France aren’t the only explanation for either the frosty relationship between father and son or for Michel’s misguided political leanings.

While a lot of the complex Michel-Thomas relationship has long and semi-obscure ties to the past, Thomas’ connection with Mona takes place entirely in the present. (Kudos to Palud for deciding to forgo any type of flashbacks, as the constant present-tense proceedings give the story a raw sense of urgency.) If the point of view of Back Home — the original French title actually means “to come back” — stays close to Thomas, Exarchopoulos still manages to impose her character as a surprisingly relatable force of nature. As she explains, in another bit of blunt dialogue, she finds it hard to be gentle with Alex, who, like most children can be patience-testing at times. But she has her heart in the right place, as becomes clear when she suggests why she wants to stay at the farm when Michel has finally come home after having spent several nights at the hospital. Her earthy presence as a complicated but good-hearted woman is a believable and welcome one in this tough world.  

Schneider, who has often been cast as a mysterious — sometimes even blank-slate — pretty boy, here finds a welcome role that has no use for his beauty. Thomas is either stuck on the farm or in the hospital, two places he doesn’t necessarily want to be, especially during the height of summer. So what we get is a sticky, sometimes mud-smeared Schneider whose usually luscious hair is here transformed into a flat, dirty mop glued onto his sweaty forehead. He’s not quite Charlize-Theron-in-Monster-level unrecognizable, but Schneider’s full-bodied performance really does manage to take center stage here because his appearance has been taken out of the equation. He also has a laid-back kind of chemistry with Exarchopoulos as his sister-in-law, even if a late scene with the duo underneath some olive trees feels like an unexpected swerve into genre complacency that's somewhat icky in hindsight.

Generally speaking, Palud has a good eye for the coarseness of country folk and life. Victor Seguin’s unadorned cinematography, which seems to use only available light while saturating the colors, is the perfect choice for the muggy, near-oppressive countryside summer during which the story is set. The appropriately stripped-down look fits perfectly with who these characters are, which is why the few instances in which music is used feel somewhat out of place as they pull the film in a more melodramatic direction. 

Production company: Fin Aout Productions
Cast: Niels Schneider, Adele Exarchopoulos, Patrick d’Assumcao, Helene Vincent, Franck Falise, Jonathan Couzinie, Roman Coustere Hachez, Catherine Salee
Director: Jessica Palud
Screenwriters: Jessica Palud, Philippe Lioret, Diasteme, based on the novel 
L’amour sans le faire by Serge Joncour
Producers: Marielle Duigou, Philippe Lioret
Cinematography: Victor Seguin
Production design: Esther Mysius
Costume design: Alexia Crisp-Jones
Editing: Thomas Marchand
Music: Augustin Charnet, Mathilda Cabezas

Casting: Stephanie Doncker
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: Pyramide International

In French
77 minutes