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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
After the heartfelt but almost high-concept mise-en-abyme of Summer of 85 (2020), prolific French director François Ozon returns to a more grounded and realistic canvas with Everything Went Fine, adapted from a novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim. The writer, who died in 2017, penned the screenplays for Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003), 5x2 (2004) and Ricky (2009), and the director’s affection for this frequent collaborator undoubtedly plays a part in the tenderness that permeates the film even in its most heart wrenching moments.
This tenderness is in fact at the centre of the nexus of tensions animating a work that belongs to the quieter, more subdued side of Ozon’s varied filmography, even as it deals with incredibly dramatic life events. Sophie Marceau (radiant even when she has a cold) plays Emmanuèle, a stand-in for the author, whose book related her grappling with the consequences of her father’s stroke and his subsequent desire to end his life.
The 85-year-old man seen here is cantankerous, casually cruel, sometimes violent and, in Emmanuèle’s own words, “not a good father”. But she loves him and, as portrayed by André Dussollier (a familiar, friendly face from the films of Alain Resnais), the charm in his dark sense of humour and frankness does come through. “I would have loved to be his friend,” Emmanuèle says, and it is in the murky waters between the things one expects from family and the less painful demands of friendship that Ozon chooses to linger.
The stroke which paralyses much of the right side of her father’s body and his request that Emmanuèle help him die naturally bring up memories from her childhood and her times spent with her father. But rather than a nostalgic look back at happier times, the few flashbacks that punctuate the film are all examples of emotionally abusive and cold parenting, foundational wounds which the now grown-up Emmanuèle is clearly still hurting from. And yet, this isn’t a film about a daughter settling old scores with her old man before he passes away. Rather than evidence to be used against him to draw a kind of end-of-life balance sheet listing his good and bad deeds, these few glimpses in the rear view mirror are more like old reflexes and fixations which, although she can still feel their sting, Emmanuelle knows do not capture the whole truth.
For a director who we know is capable of adopting a rather emphatic style, the sparseness in the details given of this family’s past feels intentional and refreshing. Ozon paints in just a few select brushstrokes a picture of difficult but nevertheless loving relationships that is just clear enough for the viewer to understand the complicated emotions – ranging from anger to disappointment, sadness to frustration, profound love to bitter hate – running through Emmanuèle.
Ozon is careful not to turn the ailing father into a tyrannical caricature and is always precise in including moments of laughter and tenderness to break the tension. Although it is true that “you can’t refuse him anything,” this man isn’t a monster, and both Emmanuèle and her sister Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas) are mature and smart enough to understand the importance of respecting his wishes.
This refusal to step outside of grey areas, while commendable, does make for some repetitions as the father continuously reiterates his desire to end everything even as his health improves. But Ozon’s films often have an aspirational quality and Everything Went Fine is no exception; the beautiful sweaters, the intellectual Parisian lifestyle, the receptions at art galleries and the delicious food at expensive restaurants form a comforting background to this painful story about letting go, a plush base of luxury that the film can always rely on in its less engaging moments.
One could argue that the emotional restraint of its protagonists, their dignity in dealing with such a momentous event, is aspirational too. But Marceau’s performance, her character’s own health issues, the deep depression of her mother (Charlotte Rampling) and a mysterious man who hints at a whole other, quasi-secret life for the father suggest perhaps even deeper traumas haunting this family, who feel it is either too late to look down and try to face them, or simply too dangerous. The film’s title is therefore both sincere and bittersweet, a summary of the profound affection and of the compromises that make up often fraught but somehow loving family bonds.
Summer of ’85 takes us down once more to the shoreline of François Ozon’s youth
By Alex Ramon
By the Grace of God review: François Ozon confronts child abuse in the Catholic Church
By Roger Clarke
François Ozon: 10 essential films and the classics that influenced them
By Nick Chen
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy