Stand by Me, by David Bax
André Téchiné’s enthralling new film In the Name of My Daughter spends the majority of its runtime being temptingly cagey about its own identity. Perhaps French audiences more familiar with the criminal case and subsequent memoir upon which the film is based would have had a different experience but part of the fun in watching is figuring out just what type of story this actually is. The title and the early scenes of a young woman returning home to her mother from a life and failed marriage abroad suggest a family drama. Then Téchiné begins to transition into the plot and rhythms of a big-business intrigue thriller. And eventually, just as we’ve started to get a handle on the tone, the film starts down the other side of the hill, becoming beguilingly more diffuse before a final, extended coda casts everything in a new light. It’s a film you may want to see more than once.
Adèle Haenel plays Agnès Le Roux, the prodigal daughter who has come home less to reunite with her mother, Renée (Catherine Deneuve), than to collect the inheritance she feels she is owed. The person most able to help her is Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), Renée’s lawyer and advisor. Agnès and Maurice collaborate in manipulating the family business to Agnès’ benefit but Maurice has motivations of his own, even after their relationship becomes something more than a professional one.
Given that a criminal case was mentioned above, it probably goes without saying that not all Agnès and Maurice’s activities are entirely legal. So is this a crime film masquerading as a domestic drama or the other way around? Or, as Agnès falls more and more in love with Maurice while he remains essentially self-interested, is it a tragic love story? The truth is that, like many good stories, it’s less concerned with what genre it will be filed into and more concerned with its characters. However, befitting a case that captured the public’s attention for decades, the main players become less and less knowable as the film goes on, a dicey trick which Téchiné executes with aplomb.
Another way the film is slow to show its hand is with its period setting. Again, French audiences already know when this story happened but it may take a while for an American audience to place the events in the mid-70s. The film doesn’t have the assertive costuming of American Hustle or the slightly warm color timing of A Most Violent Year. Téchiné’s presentation is modestly current. The absence of cellphones and the presence of tape recorders and beige, analog intercom systems are the only clues.
There are certainly no hints of the era to be found on the soundtrack. But that is not to imply the film eschews music. In fact, In the Name of My Daughter has the heart of a movie musical beneath its bones. The score, by Benjamin Biolay, is emotional but essentially simple. The diegetic songs, on the other hand, are anything but. Ranging from opera sung at the dinner table to a French version of “Stand by Me” blaring from a car stereo to a recording of African tribal music that gives us the best impromptu dance sequence since Ex Machina, these moments lend the film a thrilling unpredictability. Téchiné endorses the musical genre’s philosophy that there are some emotions – exuberance, abandon, lust – that can only be expressed through song.
In the Name of My Daughter‘s fluidity of plot and other elements mixes some of Téchiné’s best traits. It has the character and tonal focus of his mid-2000’s work like Strayed or Changing Times and the momentum of 1994’s Wild Reeds. It may never be as sublime as that masterpiece but it’s too good and too much fun to overlook nonetheless.