An indie, French version of Pierre Morel’s Taken (which in itself was a mostly-French production), Christian Carion’s latest film, My Son, suffers from the comparison. Its aspirations, skilled direction, and a magnificent central turn initially lead one to believe they’re watching a probing study of a man’s redemption, an allegorical treatise on guilt and – allusions to Scottish philosopher David Hume’s classic book aside – the very essence of human nature itself. Alas, it devolves into a by-the-numbers thriller, albeit seen through an indie prism. It’s as if Carion balked at the enormity of his film’s potential, choosing “safe” over “profound”.
Set in a remote, mountainous town, My Son begins compellingly. Divorced parents Julien (Guillaume Canet) and Marie (Mélanie Laurent) find themselves reuniting under the most dire of circumstances: their young son, Mathys (Lino Papa), suddenly and silently disappeared from nature camp one wintery night. Marie is convinced Mathys ran away to get back at her for getting pregnant with her new partner, Grégoire (Olivier de Benoist). “Your son can be so difficult,” she pointedly tells her ex.
“Marie is convinced Mathys ran away to get back at her for getting pregnant with her new partner…”
The rest of the film is told from Julien’s perspective – a tormented soul with a shady, globe-trotting past that’s prevented him from truly connecting with his son, their relationship amounting to postcards and infrequent trips to Scotland. Blinded by guilt, judgment, and bitterness, Julien embarks on a redemptive search, which involves several trips to the local police station, a violent encounter with Grégoire, the surfacing of truths regarding Marie’s pregnancy – and, eventually, the discovery of Mathys’ burnt sleeping bag in a man’s oven.
All this delightfully disorienting threads seem like they’d lead to some sort of euphoric culmination – but no, the film instead resorts to cheap thrills in its second half, involving beatings, shootings and a torture-by-blowtorch sequence. Carion, along with his co-screenwriter Laure Irrman, leave things annoyingly unexplained – which would be fine in a poetic meditation on loss and grief that purposefully raises more questions than answers, but is indefensible in a neither-here-nor-there pseudo-intellectual thriller.
“Suspicious, guilt-ridden, increasingly unhinged, Canet is magnificent as always…”
It’s really a shame because Carion and his crew get so much right. The director nails intensely-charged scenes, such as the one in which Grégoire incessantly waxes poetic to a clearly-traumatized Julien about the future “project” he’s planning to build with Marie. Suspicious, guilt-ridden, increasingly unhinged, Canet is magnificent as always, expressing worlds of emotion with the faintest of gestures (while being questioned at the police station early on, the sight of the actor gradually crumbling is a sight to behold.) The locale’s blisteringly cold environment is captured in painterly shades by DoP Eric Dumont, complementing the film’s melancholic, despondent mood and tone.
My Son is about dealing with familial loss, the need for closure and salvation, and how easily the two can tip into revenge. It’s about the perils of parenthood and how tragedy brings out the best and worst in us. It’s about obsession. I wish Carion developed on those themes, leaving things more ambiguous, mysterious, challenging – not run-of-the-mill. It’s damn effective filmmaking. It just could’ve – and should’ve – been so much more.
My Son (2019) Directed by Christian Carion. Written by Christian Carion and Laure Irrmann. Starring Guillaume Canet, Mélanie Laurent, Olivier de Benoist.
6 out of 10