Cinemania: J’enrage de son absence

Sandrine Bonnaire’s dramatic directorial debut, a striking study of grief, screens this afternoon at Cinemania.

It’s hard to imagine a film more personal than Sandrine Bonnaire’s first film Elle s’appelait Sabine, a documentary about her autistic sister Sabine (which is also playing Cinemania as part of the fest’s Bonnaire retrospective). In the realm of fiction, though, Bonnaire’s J’enrage de son absence comes close. A striking study of grief that’s dedicated to her mother, inspired by a real event in her life and starring Bonnaire’s real-life baby-daddy William Hurt, J’enrage de son absence is as personal as a film can get without turning the camera directly on the filmmaker.

Jacques (Hurt) returns to France after his father’s death to settle his affairs and finds himself plunged in grief; the last time he was in France, his four-year-old son was killed in a car accident while Jacques was driving. Meeting tentatively with his ex-wife Mado (Alexandra Lamy) and her seven-year-old son Paul (Jalil Mehenni), he becomes so overcome with sorrow that he attempts to mend by befriending the child. Soon, Jacques is living clandestinely in the garage of their apartment building, spending time with Paul unbeknownst to Mado and Paul’s father (Augustin Legrand). Paul, on the other hand, becomes enamored with this mysterious stranger who brings him presents and tells him about the brother he never knew.

J’enrage de son absence sort of plays like a disturbing true-life version of those kid-befriends-imaginary-friend movies; in this case, however, the friend is very real. It’s a subtle, intimate film full of tiny moments that are beautifully observed by Bonnaire’s no-frills approach to the material. Despite a mildly outlandish concept, the film is constantly mired in an earthy realism and perpetual discomfort, recalling Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the current crop of British kitchen-sink cinema.

Hurt is striking as the pale, grief-stricken Jacques; for an actor who too often comes across as the human manifestation of the color beige, it’s a genius bit of typecasting. Mehenni is also terrific in a part that toes the line between precocity and movie-precocity (although I find myself saying that more and more these days; could it be that the era of insufferably precocious moppets is behind us?).

The third act is pitched more melodramatically than one would hope considering the intimate scale of the film, making the final emotional punch somewhat more muted than you’d be led to believe. Still, it’s a remarkably assured debut film under any circumstance, an uncomfortably intimate portrait of grief and emptiness that (mostly) avoids self-immolating with melodrama. ■


J’enrage de son absence (Maddened by His Absence) screens today at Imperial Cinema (1432 Bleury), 2:45 p.m. as part of Cinemania.

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