Maddened by his Absence (J'enrage de son absence): Cannes Review

A morose Sturm und Drang drama from French actress Sandrine Bonnaire

William Hurt stars as Jacques, a man who is unable to overcome a tragic past.

CANNES - About as subtle as its painfully literal title, Maddened by his Absence (J’enrage de son absence) is an emotionally overcharged psychological drama about a father who tries to purge the demons of his son’s death by latching on to his ex-wife’s family. Featuring a brooding French-language performance by William Hurt, this heavy-handed sophomore effort from actress turned cineaste Sandrine Bonnaire (The Ceremony, Police) should do modest art house biz following its Critics’ Week premiere.

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While Bonnaire’s 2007 documentary, Her Name is Sabine, was a highly autobiographical affair, the scenario (co-written with Jerome Tonnerre, The Women on the 6th Floor) for this first fictional endeavor is closer to high-concept melodrama, even if there seem to be some personal elements in its story of a Franco-American couple with a troubled past (Bonnaire and Hurt were an item back in the 90s, and have a daughter together).

Set in the distant suburbs of Paris, and predominantly in a series of darkened rooms and basements, the story follows Jacques (Hurt) as he arrives back in France following his father’s death. While administering his dad’s estate, Jacques begins stalking Mado (Alexandra Lamy) and her 7-year-old son, Paul (promising newcomer Jalil Mehenni), and we soon learn that Jacques and Mado were formerly married and had a child who died in a car accident nine years prior.

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Once the backstory is cleared up, Maddened by his Absence becomes an increasingly morose portrait of a man coping with a loss he could never overcome, with Jacques slyly befriending Paul and hiding in the latter’s storage cellar nearby a box of his dead son’s belongings. For the rest of the movie, the narrative turns around whether or not Mado and her new b.f., Stephane (Augustin Legrand) will realize just how low Jacques has sunken, and it takes so long for everyone to literally deal with the elephant in the room that some viewers may be screaming for an on-set psychiatrist.

More subtly drawn is the relationship between Jacques and Mado, whose romance was initially interrupted by the accident, and for whom there still seems to be a fair amount of mutual love and respect. Not unlike in Rabbit Hole, Bonnaire does a decent job revealing how a couple can manage to bond over a tragedy that once drove them apart, and the scenes between the two ex-spouses are more palpable than all the ones of Jacques curling up alone on the basement floor.

Making his first excursion to France since Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York, Hurt fares extremely with dialogue predominantly en français, offering the rare occasion of an American actor who can hold his own in a French movie. However, his verbal dexterity is often at odds with the film’s onslaught of grandiose emotions, which Bonnaire dishes out via countless close-ups and a soundtrack of heavy-duty orchestral compositions from Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki.

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Widescreen lensing by Philippe Guibert (Hidden Diary) makes the most of all the somber interiors, although the film’s gloom and doom tone never really subsides.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Mon Voisin Productions, Mosaique Films, Iris Productions, Iris Films
Cast: William Hurt, Alexandra Lamy, Augustin Legrand, Jalil Mehenni
Director: Sandrine Bonnaire
Screenwriters: Sandrine Bonnaire, Jerome Tonnerre
Producers: Dominique Besnehard, Michel Feller, Thomas Schmitt, Nicolas Steil, Jesus Gonzalez
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Denis Hager
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Editor: Svetlana Vaynblat
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 98 minutes