'Death by Death' ('Je me tue a le dire'): Palm Springs Review

Death by Death Still - H 2016
Courtesy of PSIFF

Death by Death Still - H 2016

Hilarious, gorgeous and touching.

Myriam Boyer and Jean-Jacques Rausin are a mother and son both worried about dying in this absurd Belgian dramady from Xavier Seron, shot in gorgeous black-and-white.

Dramedy Death by Death (Je me tue à le dire) is as darkly absurd and deadpan as you would expect a Belgian black-and-white comedy about dying to be. This accomplished feature fiction debut from Francophone director Xavier Seron — a protege of compatriot Bouli Lanners (Eldorado), another maestro of gorgeously shot, funny-sad meditations on life — explores a complex mother-son relationship, with the hypochondriac adult son worrying about his health after his mother’s diagnosed with cancer and it becomes a race to see who’ll die first. Though not wholly original, this frequently hits the sweet spot between oddly eccentric and cinematically appealing — the latter in large part due to its crisp, bichrome cinematography — and announces Seron as a talent to watch. It won the New Voices/New Visions Award at the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival and should travel far and wide, with an off chance of niche theatrical pickups in Franco-friendly territories.

“When my mother gave me life, she also gave me death,” muses the not entirely optimistic Michel Mann (Jean-Jacques Rausin), a schlubby and scruffy delivery guy of a household electronics store who’s pushing 40. He’s sort of moved back in with his aging mother (Myriam Boyer) after she’s been told by her doctor she has breast cancer. A follow-up mammogram reveals there’s nothing there, which doesn’t convince Michel, who’s sure it must be hiding somewhere. He also starts worrying about a weird lump behind one of his own nipples, which leads to a priceless scene in a changing room that involves three other half-naked guys all checking Michel’s mammilla. They decide to ask a man whose sister has breast cancer for help and the sequence’s punchline is both hilarious and awfully dark, as is much of the humor on display here.

Rather than a more conventional narrative, the film, which is divided into several chapters, consists of as a series of low-key sketches that, together, create a character study of an unself-confident and hypochondriac man and his beloved, somewhat-too-attached mother. Seron, who also wrote the screenplay, is someone who likes to combine different types of humor, often in the same scene, from physical slapstick to word play — inventively translated in the subtitles in Palm Springs — and sight gags. One of the film's biggest laughs is generated by combining an audio cue with clever framing, as Michel's mother tries to wake him up in the middle of the night.

The writer-director, who spent several years on this feature debut after co-helming a documentary, is someone who is very attentive to telling details, from the way people behave to what they have in their homes. Michel’s mother, for example, is an eccentric with a house full of cats — since she’s got so much love to give —, a rug featuring a copy of the Shroud of Turin — since she, too, seems subconsciously obsessed by death — and a desire, after her cancer scare, to only drink champagne to celebrate life (“It’s sparkling wine, Mom!” her son keeps reminding her). A seemingly innocent vintage object on his mother’s wall suddenly becomes very prominent in the film’s audacious closing shot, which takes Christian iconography to surreal new heights, to simultaneously shocking and comedic effect.

It’s not all that strange that Michel likes to bask in his mother’s unconditional love, since his relationship with his petite girlfriend (Fanny Touron) grows increasingly sour when a handsome ex of hers who’s a doctor — cue the jealousy/inferiority complex — has come back from years abroad. In another stroke of comedic genius, Seron has Michel end up in the hospital, where he’ll have to be treated by his girlfriend’s ex, much to her delight and his chagrin.

As a Walloon Average Joe, Rausin, who has worked with Seron before, is perfect as the deadpan Michel, while French veteran actress Boyer manages to turn his mother into someone who’s as touching as she’s stubborn. The supporting cast is also aces, right down to the smallest roles, such as Catherine Salee (The White Knights), who appears in a single scene in which she plays the owner of an old people’s home that’s being refurbished while the elderly continue to live there. Above the noise of the hammer drills, she screams: "It doesn't matter, all of our patients are half-deaf anyway". 

If Seron finds the right tone for his tricky material, his work is significantly elevated by the black-and-white cinematography from DP Olivier Vanaschen. He manages to turn the relative squalor of these working-class characters into something classy, using symmetrical compositions and overhead shots to turn the mundane into something more sublime.

Production companies: Novak Production, Tobina Film

Cast: Jean-Jacques Rausin, Myriam Boyer, Fanny Touron, Serge Riaboukine, Catherine Salee

Writer-Director: Xavier Seron

Producers: François Cognard, Bernard De Dessus les Moustier, Olivier Dubois

Director of photography: Olivier Vanaschen

Production designer: Erwan Le Floc’h

Costume designer: Laure Maheo

Editor: Julie Naas

Music: Thomas Barriere

Casting: Florence Madec

No rating, 90 minutes