leave a comment --Ken Fox
Lurching backwards and forwards in time and packed with philosophical sidebars, conversations with the dying and the dead, and numerous references to Greek myth, Melville and Shakespeare's plays, Arnaud Desplechin's sprawling, two-headed character study is the kind of brainy human comedy that only this formidable French auteur seems capable of making. Parisian art dealer Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) has come to Grenoble to visit her elderly father, Louis Jenssens (Maurice Garrel), an renowned university professor, and collect her son, Elias, who's been spending the summer with his grandfather while Nora prepares for her upcoming wedding to Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin). Elias's father, Pierre (Emmanuel Salinger), was killed ten years earlier only a few months before Elias was born; Nora's ex-lover, Ismael (Mathieu Almaric), a concert violist, basically acted as Elias's father for the first six years of the boy's life. Not long after Nora arrives in Grenoble, Louis is diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer, and the doctors only give him another week or so to live. Anguished at the prospect of having to watch her father die before her eyes, and frightened that Elias will be left alone should anything happen to her, Nora decides to track down Ismael in hopes that he'll officially adopt her son. Ismael, however, is in no position to adopt any one. He's not only busy battling the IRS, to whom he owes thousands in back taxes, and his own ferocious inner demons, but his spiteful sister, Elisabeth (Noemie Lvovsky), has had him committed to a sanitarium. With his persecution complex now in full-force, cantankerous Ismael complains that there's no way he can confide in his psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve) — women, he feels, have no soul — and he begs his pill-popping lawyer (Hyppolyte Girardot) to get him out as soon as possible. As the film cuts between Nora and Ismael — and back in forth in time to reveal their past histories — we discover that neither is exactly who they at first appear. After Ismael falls for a suicidal young sinology student (Magalie Woch), he evolves into a figure of compassion and deep wisdom, while a shocking moment after Louis death leaves us with quite a different image of Nora. Desplechin carefully avoids taking any kind of clear moral stance in relation to his characters, and his willingness to allow audiences to judge for themselves has led some critics to hail a complex film like MY SEX LIFE... (1996) as a masterpiece and others to dismiss the grossly misunderstood ESTHER KAHN (2000) as a reprehensible disaster. This film is no exception, but here Desplechin begun to rein in his fondness for wordy digressions and broad comedy, and it might be his finest film to date.