The tortured male artist is regularly indulged by cinema: countless films describe creative men behaving badly in the service of their genius, with only lip service paid to the messy reality of their mental health or the effect of their behaviour on others. With this exceptionally moving and smartly observed film, Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse offers something of a corrective, and a tense, disturbing one.
It’s the story of a painter with bipolar disorder, Damien (Damien Bonnard), and those who exist in his orbit, especially his wife, Leïla (Leïla Bekhti), and young son, Amine (Gabriel Merz Chammah). It’s a deeply human film, full of the wonder and pain of family life – with the pain sometimes threatening to take over entirely.
We meet Damien, a larger-than-life presence, in physique and character, in the sun of southern France and on the edges of a manic episode. A moment of distinct recklessness – he hands the steering wheel of a speedboat to his son and swims to shore alone – turns into full-blown hyperactivity and desperate insomnia as he cooks up an overblown feast in the kitchen, jumps wide-eyed on his motorbike or labours intensely over his paintings in the workshop of the rambling, bohemian home he shares with his family close to the Mediterranean.
An art dealer indulges his offer to prepare a large number of new paintings to hit an impending exhibition deadline, but only his wife and child know the full horror of what’s going on. The slow tragedy is reflected all over their faces. There’s ample love here – a singalong in the car to Bernard Lavilliers and Nicoletta’s ’80s hit Idées Noires is borderline heartbreaking – but they can barely enjoy the good times knowing what’s likely around the corner.
Lafosse’s compassionate but unswerving perspective is emotionally very powerful, as is his ability to make us complicit in the ever-present nervousness felt by those close to Damien. Damien is played so effectively by Bonnard, who balances a brazen self-belief and an underlying severe paranoia with many shades in-between. It often feels like a disaster is just round the corner, so that simple things like Damien driving a car or jumping into a lake with some kids take on an air of dread.
The work of the actors is exemplary. Bekhti’s Leïla, trying to hold down her own work as an upholsterer as well as keep her family together and protect her son, is forever nervous and on guard, except for a telling period when Damien is absent, while Merz Chammah’s Amine occupies that pre-teen space where he knows just enough to fear that his father is not who he wishes he was. The sunny southern coastal setting has a sly effect on us too: superficially relaxed and free, this location just can’t be enjoyed as it should by these people. It’s a prison with privileges.
Lafosse has previously shown himself a master at getting under the hood of troubled family dynamics with films including Our Children and Private Property. His latest offers a second layer of worry: it’s set (and presumably shot) during the pandemic in 2020, adding an additional level of anxiety and isolation to the whole affair. It’s subtly done and only gradually apparent, but it gives pause for thought when you consider the many stories of families stuck with each other in difficult situations of confinement. The rest of the world feels far away here, and the one that Lafosse has created rings painfully true. It’s a film that oozes clear-eyed empathy and has the lived-in feel of a story, director and cast working in strong harmony.