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Despite there having been lots of constructive crosstalk between French and American cinemas over the years, the French still have their own specific way of doing things. (I’m reminded of the old television engineer joke about the French broadcast standard, SECAM, standing for “Something Entirely Contrary to American Methods,” ar ar ar.) And sometimes that’s a pretty good thing. While you wouldn’t want to see it for this reason alone, “My Son,” a new thriller directed by Christian Carion (from a script co-written with Laure Irrmann) and starring (and co-produced by) Guillaume Canet, is a stark contrast to the American “Taken” films starring Liam Neeson.
For one thing, when Canet has to climb over a fence in pursuit of his son’s kidnapers, the action isn’t conveyed in thirteen different shots/cuts. No, it’s a single take, from a distance, and Canet finds the fence a bit of a physical challenge even though It’s not inordinately high. “My Son” finds its cinematic footing in a committed, steady, realism, and that creates a high-wire act of tension and suspense that’s refreshingly clean and consistently effective.
The movie is also tight—a couple minutes short of 90 minutes. It hardly feels incomplete though, despite some of the things it withholds.
“My Son” begins with Canet, his hair shaggier here than in Olivier Assayas’ great “Non-Fiction,” which opened in the States last week, driving through French mountain country while a voice message from his wife plays on the soundtrack. Marie (Melanie Laurent) and boyfriend Grégoire (Olivier de Benoist) dropped Mathys, Marie’s son with Canet’s character Julien, at camp a couple days ago; now he’s disappeared from his tent.
On first meeting, after an initial outpouring of emotion, Marie and Julien are diplomatic with each other. “You know just as well as I why we broke up,” Julien says to her. She speaks of boyfriend Grégoire, and when Julien goes to her house to retrieve photos of the boy, he also finds a video camera featuring footage that demonstrates the relationship between Marie’s new love and Julien’s son wasn’t rosy. Add to that the fact that Marie’s pregnant with Grégoire’s child. Add to that the fact that when Julien meets Grégoire after an inconclusive appointment with the local police, Grégoire enthusiastically shares with Julien the plans for a house Grégoire and Marie plan to build—a house, Julien notes, with a bedroom for the baby, but none for Mathys.
I won’t reveal what ensues at that juncture. But subsequently, Julien gets a call from work, saying the cops had been snooping around, and his employers don’t want that kind of prying. Then we cut back to the prior police meeting, with Julien telling the captain that he travels to the Middle East a lot because he’s a … geologist. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
No, Julien doesn’t tell anyone he has “skills.” But clearly he does: by examining the aforementioned video, he zeroes in on evidence that leads him to the culprits, and he goes to their lair unarmed and clearly nervous—his skills only go so far. But the film’s final twenty minutes are effective in both the emotional and edge-of-your-seat categories. French methods do get the job done, and without huffing and puffing about it.