Sense of loss regained in Darroussin's first-directed film By C.S. Roy

in 63rd Venice International Film Festival

by Charles-Stéphane Roy

It would be presumptuous to see French actor-turned-director Jean-Pierre Darroussin as the typical beginning helmer with Le Pressentiment (mistranslated as The Premonition). Not only has he been one of Guediguian’s favourites since the 1980’s and one introverted driven persona in many other films, but also because of his own old fascination for the 1930’s novel of the same name by Emmanuel Bove that he read in his 20’s.

His closeness with the material and the attitude Darroussin is sharing with Charles Benestau, the central character of the story, one of self-contained tenderness translated in that unique bittersweet smile, has surely comforted his performance in front and behind the camera.

Set in present day Paris, Le Pressentiment explores the disillusions and self-imposed loneliness of the once wealthy lawyer Benestau after he deliberately left his wife, family and career to move in a working class neighbourhood, hoping to achieve peace of mind and fulfilment in a material-free way of life. His encounter with the teenage daughter of a one-time off-the-record thug client after the severe beating that left her mother in coma as well as the legal set-off of his own parents’ shares will leave him nearly broke and yet ready to start again as a full-time compassionate loner.

Inviting the young girl to stay in his small apartment with his intrusive and gossiping neighbour Isabelle (played carefully by co-screenwriter Valerie Stroh), Benestau feels alive and helpful, which motivates him to peacefully set the record straight with his reptilian brother Marc, his bourgeois ex-wife Alice and his presumed son Ferdinand (he was always convinced that he was not the father). As several unexpected heart failures awaken the shadow of a slow but close death, Benestau would seek a meaningful last ride.

Darroussin’s character and direction could be easily identified as one monk’s work. Isn’t it the unique task of the Catholic reclusive brotherhood to devote their loneliness for illuminated readings (Benestau got rid of his Law books in favour of what looks like essays and Philosophy) and accompany the misguided and needful ones?

Sporting a de rigueur raw beard and an everlasting austere brown outfit, Benestau’s character sudden leap of faith is reminiscent of Bernard Emond’s La Neuvaine, a Bressonian effort of equal moral appetite through getaways (redemption by detachment) and ascetic looks. We’ll never know exactly how much Benestau is acting out of despair and guilt because of a real illness or if his occasional fainting just shook up his misanthropic behaviour and showed him the path to more empathic grounds.

The film avoids wisely any twisted, contrived narrative turns by adopting a more low-key profile. Darroussin reveals himself has a confident director more attracted by simplicity and an obvious ‘live and let live’ attitude than flashy manoeuvres or complexity for the sake of illusory dramatic depth.

A more suitable English translation would have been The Presumption (like a ‘prediction’), or a more literal one, The Presentiment, marking the precise state that could not but to generate an unavoidable, Pavlovian feeling. Darroussin’s picture stands in the middle of those two definitions, as his Benestau characterisation is predicting the right way to sense and prepare his final days. The Darroussin-Bove match is neat, tasteful and quite fitting as well, as if the actor-director was almost intended to play the character. It’s then not surprising at all that Darroussin fell in love with the “He was a peculiar guy” quote formerly addressed about Benestau, a description tailored-made for one of the few low-key yet unmistakable actors around.