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MOVIE REVIEW

This `Father' poses a frightening figure

"If I'd met him by chance, I'd have fallen for his charm," admits Jean-Luc (Charles Berling), the prosperous doctor at the center of "How I Killed My Father." He's speaking of his dad, though, and genetics don't let you off the hook that easily.

 

There's no actual homicide in Anne Fontaine's hushed but scalpel-sharp drama, a movie that'll probably send men in the audience home much quieter than they arrived. What killing gets done happens to the old man that many a son carries within him: the towering patriarch who'll always be disappointed, no matter his own faults. "How I Killed My Father" offers the harrowing sight of a man wrestling with the demon dad he has long internalized and which bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing. Maurice (Michel Bouquet), in fact, looks completely harmless when he appears at a garden party at his son's elegant Versailles estate in the film's opening scenes. Soft-spoken and deceptively frail, he abandoned Jean-Luc and his brother Patrick (Stephane Guillon) when they were children and has spent years working as a doctor in rural Africa. Political turmoil has forced him from his clinic and deposited him on Jean-Luc's doorstep. Does Maurice want money? Reconciliation? A go at his son's sweetly chic wife, Isa (Natacha Regnier)? The nebulous nature of his visit is enough to turn the strongest of men to Jello.

Jean-Luc appears to be made of tempered steel, but it doesn't take much for the rivets to start popping. The son is a handsome and well-spoken gerontologist whose response to his patients' fears of death is to administer pills and Botox injections -- age is for medicating, not confronting. The boy who Maurice remembers as overweight and nervous has grown into a yuppie control freak who employs his wastrel younger brother as a chauffeur and keeps his wife in childless luxury. Running from his father's sins has only made him come up with his own.

Bouquet makes the father a figure of genial unknowability -- Maurice is both larger and smaller than life. It's Berling who has the harder job of portraying a buttoned-up man trying to flee the shouting boy within; the performance, taken with his playing of the Machiavellian high-tech executive in Olivier Assayas's "Demonlover," marks Berling as one of France's most agile and uncompromising actors. Fontaine tells her story with the calm of a symphonic conductor, maintaining a decorous surface under which the hounds of resentment eat their own innards. The pressure cooker is bound to explode, and it does, but not in the expected fashion -- for one thing, we slowly come to see the ways in which Maurice subtly and smilingly plays upon the fears of his grown sons. Can one be a well-intentioned manipulator? Do parents have any responsibility to the nightmare versions of themselves their children carry into adulthood? Has Maurice's visit even occurred at all, or has it just unfolded in the tormented conscience of his son?

Polite but emotionally devastating, "How I Killed My Father" throws such questions out like smart bombs, and they detonate long after the end-credits have rolled.

"How I Killed My Father": ***1/2)

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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