Updated: Dec 4, 2021
As the second release in this year's fff@home following Yamina Benguigui's powerful Sisters (Soeurs), My Father's Stories (Profession du père) is not an easy film. Despite a fairly innocuous poster featuring Benoît Poelvoorde in one of his typically stoic yet comedic poses, it's a film that dares to walk the line and take a different approach to the conflict as France left Algeria in the time leading up to their independence in 1962. It was a dark period in modern French history, and one that many people are still trying to reckon with, which is why we continue to see books and films like this, Lucas Belvaux's Home Front (Des hommes), and Nicole Garcia's A View of Love (Un balcon sur la mer) grappling with the subject matter.
Told primarily from the perspective of young Emile Choulans (an impressive performance by newcomer Jules Lefebvre), it examines the conflict through the eyes of a child, as he tries to make sense of the world around him through his father's stories. His father, André (Benoît Poelvoorde) tells him about the mysterious 'Organisation' (the terrorist group known as OAS - Organisation Armée Secrète) and starts sending him on 'missions' to advance the cause. At first Emile doesn't understand what he's doing, but as he starts to follow the news reports - and even finds himself to be the subject of one - his knowledge of the situation grows. The trouble is that it's still viewed through the eyes of a child, and one who will do anything to make his father better.
When a new boy, Lucas Biglioni (Tom Lévy) arrives at Emile's school from Algeria, his interest grows. Lucas is branded a 'dirty pied-noir' by the other children, but Emile befriends him and the two boys start to spend a lot of time together. Emile even has his mother sew him a pied-noir patch onto his sleeve, which he keeps hidden under his jacket, in solidarity with Lucas' family who had to flee Algeria following death threats. Slowly he starts to recognise someone who might also have cause to fight for the 'Organisation', and so Emile hatches a plan to strike back at the French government (and specifically President Charles de Gaulle) who his father has branded as traitors.
For Emile, it's all about helping his father, in the vain hope that he can somehow restore him back to the person he once was. Between moments of humour, charm, and fantastical stories, Emile's father is prone to violent outbursts and bouts of depression. He no longer works (a point cleverly touched upon in the original French title, Profession du père) and spends his time in bed when he's not watching the news, indulging his paranoid delusions, or crafting missions for his son. When Emile asks his mother (Audrey Dana) about what happened to André, she just says he came back from his post-war service in Algeria as a different man. She tells Emile that he saw things no man should see, but then says he's 'too young' when he asks her to explain further. When asked if de Gaulle's death might help his father, she shrugs off the question - not realising the depth or gravity of the situation.
Things take a more sinister turn as Emile starts to employ his father's own tactics and fabrications with Lucas, manipulating him into a situation where he becomes a willing operative who is prepared to take action for the 'Organisation'. It's almost too late when Emile realises the error of his ways, as he's already set Lucas on a mission and a course from which he cannot return. Once more his father's trauma and influence is destroying a young life, and it's time to bring an end to it all. Although not providing all the answers, or filling in all the blanks, we get a clearer picture of how things turn out as a grown-up Emile (Nicolas Bridet) starts to look back.
Director Jean-Pierre Améris (who also wrote and directed the much lighter Family For Rent with Poelvoorde and Franco Files favourite, Virginie Efira) does an excellent job of adapting Sorj Chalandon's book, Profession du père. with regular co-writer Murielle Magellan. They address not only the long-lasting impact of the Franco-Algerian War and its aftermath, but also the impact of mental health and trauma on a family when one (or both) of the people suffering is a parent. It's a difficult and wide-ranging area to cover, yet it's done in a way where there's still hope - for those who went through it, and those who were left behind.
Although not the 'light' film the poster or synopsis seem to promise, My Father's Stories is worthwhile viewing, and makes a great addition to this year's line-up. You can still get tickets to start watching it via INDEE+ from 7:30pm GMT on the evening of December 4 - then anytime within the 48-hours that follows - as part of this year's online selection of the French Film Festival UK.