A case of murder, or perhaps more justly of unexplained disappearance, which has fascinated France for more than thirty years is the subject of Andre Techine’s “In the Name of My Daughter,” which dramatizes the circumstances of the sordid affair, though it treats the aftermath of a trial that finally occurred in 2006 only via captions at the close. It’s a reasonably interesting if surprisingly pedestrian run-through of the notorious business, not unlike the many retellings of true-life crime stories that fill not only American theatre auditoriums but the television airwaves as well. It leaves one wanting more, not just in terms of explanation but in depth of treatment. Even a little sensationalism might have helped.
The story, which revolves around what are called the Nice casino wars of the 1970s, focuses on the Le Roux family: commanding mother Renee (Catherine Deneuve), a widow who runs the Palais de la Mediterranee, one of two rival casinos on the French Riviera, and her semi-estranged daughter Agnes (Adele Haenel), who returns home from Africa to demand her share of the family inheritance. The third major character is Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), a struggling lawyer who serves as Renee’s chief advisor and general factotum. It’s he, for example, who picks up Agnes at the airport and accompanies her home.
Renee explains that she can’t give Agnes her money right now, because the casino is losing business to its competitor, a place run by a Mafia-backed fellow named Forsini (Jean Corso). The refusal causes a further rift between the women. To add to the breakdown of what should have been a family alliance, Agnelet walks away in a huff when she declines to appoint him as manager of the casino, despite the fact that he’s just engineered her hold on its board of directors. Matters are made even more complicated by the fact that by this time the lonely, emotionally needy Agnes—who’s now running a small gift shop in town—has fallen head over heels for Agnelet, a married man who’s nonetheless a philanderer with a cute mistress already on the side.
The lawyer takes advantage of the girl’s desperation to encourage her to vote with the opposition in the next board meeting, removing her mother from control of the Palais. Then he arranges the sale of the place to Forsini, who shortly closes it down; and while that brings Agnes a tidy sum, Agnelet further arranges their accounts so that he can, in an emergency, control hers. It will come as little surprise that Agnelet’s interest in Agnes decreases thereafter. During the course of 1977 she becomes increasingly depressed and attempts suicide; and then she disappears. Agnelet takes charge of her bank account shortly thereafter, and Agnes is never seen again.
All of this is told as a flashback sandwiched between scenes set in 2006, when the aged Renee finally persuades the French authorities to put Agnelet on trial for murder. The last reel of the film is devoted to the hearing—with both Deneuve and especially Canet encased in heavy old-age makeup. The result of the trial won’t be revealed here, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t close the matter, since—as the closing captions report—additional appeals and legal jockeying continue to the present day.
This is a fairly interesting case, but the treatment by Techine and his co-writer Jean-Charles Le Roux (one of Agnes’ brothers), working from a memoir by Jean-Charles and his mother, isn’t interested primarily in the court proceedings. The script focuses instead on the relationships among the three major characters. And while Renee and Maurice are presented as enigmatically undemonstrative figures, Agnes is portrayed as high-strung and emotionally fragile. That gives Haenel the widest range to play, and though she doesn’t make the pouty, clinging girl terribly sympathetic, she does convey Agnes’ neediness (and her borderline personality) quite effectively. Deneuve is her usual imperious self, though she makes the greatest impression in the twenty-first century scenes, when frailty adds a touch of poignancy to the character. Canet, on the other hand, is stuck with the thankless task of playing a man who rarely shows his feelings, and while he manages the feat successfully, it doesn’t make for a very interesting performance. (It also raises the question of how Agnelet proved so irresistible to so many women.) By contrast Judith Chemla offers an extrovert turn as Maurice’s mistress Francoise, and Mauro Conte is ingratiating as Renee’s chauffeur Mario. The Riviera locations, both exterior and interior, are often beautiful (Olivier Radot designed the sets), and cinematographer Julien Hirsch treats them nicely in his widescreen images, while costume designer Pascaline Chavanne has fashioned some opulent gowns for Deneuve.
“In the Name of My Daughter”—the original French title would translate as “The Man Who Was Loved Too Much”—tells a lurid fact-based story in a curiously understated, reticent way. It’s an approach one can admire, but unfortunately it doesn’t result in the psychological insight the writer-director was apparently aiming for. The result is a film that’s intriguing, but emotionally rather desiccated.