Catherine Deneuve and Guillaume Canet in André Téchiné’s “In the Name of My Daughter.” | COHEN MEDIA GROUP
Out gay French director André Téchiné’s “In the Name of My Daughter” has all the elements for a satisfying film: a diva turn from Catherine Deneuve (in her seventh collaboration with the director), an unusual take on the courtroom melodrama (based on a real incident), a seemingly capable supporting cast, and gorgeous cinematography of sunny Nice locales.
Received wisdom about the film so far runs along the lines of “a thriller without thrills,” which is accurate in a sense but seems to miss the point. Téchiné’s best films have generally had a touch of autobiography — his 1994 masterpiece “The Wild Reeds” is my favorite gay coming-of-age tale, and it also touches on the effects of the Algerian War on early ‘60s France. “J’Embrasse Pas” reflected obliquely on his relationship with philosopher Roland Barthes.
“In the Name of My Daughter” is someone else’s life story — one of the screenwriters is the son of the real woman played by Deneuve, adapting her memoir. “In the Name of My Daughter” takes on the material of soap opera and tries to transform it into an art film. It’s an intriguing bet, but despite many surface pleasures, Téchiné loses.
Catherine Deneuve loses daughter amidst button-down gangster machinations
“In the Name of My Daughter” begins in 1976. Renée Le Roux (Deneuve) becomes president of a failing Nice casino. Her daughter Agnes (Adele Haenel) comes back home after a nasty divorce. Having inherited a large stake in the casino, Agnes wants to sell her shares so she can live on her own; in the meantime, she works at a store that sells books, African art, and rugs. She becomes involved with lawyer Maurice (Guillaume Canet), who works for her mother.
The casino’s future looks dim, but Agnes knows she can use her stake to manipulate her mother — or just toy with her emotions, out of a bitterness that’s never fully explained. Then Agnes disappears, and the film jumps ahead several decades to Maurice’s trial for her murder, although a body is never found.
“In the Name of My Daughter” is loaded with random moments of beauty that have nothing to do with the story. In one, the camera tracks Maurice’s son through his house. In another, it hovers alongside Agnes and Maurice’s faces as they ride a motorcycle, seemingly only inches away. These small epiphanies play like miniature versions of the splendid dance numbers in Léos Carax’s films or the extended party scene in Olivier Assayas’ “Cold Water.” I wish Téchiné had come up with more of them, and, more importantly, figured out how to integrate them into the narrative. As it is, they simply play like bonus material.
Now in her 70s, Deneuve has acquired a regal quality that initially suits her character well. In fact, that turns out to be a bit deceptive because Renée doesn’t know as much about running a casino as she thinks. Canet, a talented director himself, is blandly handsome: a French Matt Damon. He’s not so good-looking or charming that one can readily understand Maurice’s reputation as a womanizer. The process by which he gradually seduces Agnes remains mysterious, unless one thinks all friendships between heterosexual men and women will eventually turn sexual.
Téchiné may have looked at Martin Scorsese’s gangster films and decided to take out everything they include. The Mafia is present here, but there’s no onscreen violence. They use lawyers and board meetings to take over casinos, not guns. The film’s final half hour takes place in court, but its true conclusion happens in two intertitles that reverse the verdict we’ve just seen.
Téchiné obviously wants to subvert cheap thrills and easy narrative goals. Alas, his usual flair for melodrama fails him here. At best, he can combine the sensibility of an American director like Nicholas Ray with the European chill of Ingmar Bergman. “In the Name of My Daughter” sets out to disrupt genre conventions, but it just plays like a failed version of the kind of film it’s trying to critique.
IN THE NAME OF MY DAUGHTER | Directed by André Téchiné | In French with English subtitles | Cohen Media Group | Opens May 15 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at W. 63rd St.; lincolnplazacinema.com