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Father-son tussles have dominated this season’s blockbusters, from Road to Perdition to Signs to Austin Powers in Goldmember, and the theme now acquires a glassy, faux-metaphysical patina in the French psychological drama How I Killed My Father. More a Freudian self-help pamphlet than the tabloid true confession its title suggests, Anne Fontaine’s dour, impacted film belongs to the august French tradition of bourgeois anthropology—most visibly practiced by the Claudes Chabrol and Sautet. (Fontaine’s estimable co-writer, Jacques Fieschi, had a hand in the latter’s Nelly and Mr. Arnaud.) When we first meet him, fortyish doctor Jean-Luc (Charles Berling) is ripe for a rude awakening. A gerontologist who makes a mint dewrinkling and hormonally fortifying Versailles’s aging upper crust, Jean-Luc is caught in a self-spun web of inert, utilitarian relationships: He deploys his luminous wife (Natacha Régnier) as a social prop, uses his voluptuous assistant (Amira Casar) for sex, and hires his brother (Stéphane Guillon), a failed actor and demonstrably terrible stand-up comic, as his chauffeur.
The unexpected appearance of the father he never knew sets in motion a belated, accelerated oedipal crisis. Michel Bouquet’s Maurice, a colonial physician who claims to have spent much of his career braving coups in Africa, is matter-of-factly guiltless about abandoning his brood. If anything, to Jean-Luc’s annoyance, the prodigal paterfamilias seems only too happy to sit in mildly amused judgment over all he surveys. Maurice’s placid superiority (there’s a troubling dissonance between his twinkling eyes and cruel lips) communicates an ethereal sense of menace, not unlike Terence Stamp’s avenging angel in The Limey. This ever smiling enigma is such a spectral presence he seems superimposed onto the frame—or projected from the other characters’ psyches.
A disappointment after the droll, breezy suggestiveness of Fontaine’s equally Freudian Dry Cleaning, How I Killed My Father is rather less than the sum of its underventilated père-fils confrontations. Fontaine punctuates the film with numerous shots of Berling’s stricken, middle-distance stare, the camera closing in on his blank, unblinking blue orbs. The affected opacity of the psychology only points up its predictability. As if to compensate for the prevailing subzero temperatures, the tears and accusations flow like molten lava in the final few minutes. “I’m not obliged to love you,” Maurice spits, just before he and his elder son lunge at each other’s throats. The film dares to consider the parent-child link as mere biological quirk, but it takes a descent into rote hysterics for its most compelling idea to crystallize.
Blue Crush also plays a waiting game, and the payoff—the Pacific in full unconquerable swell—is almost magnificent enough to make the preceding inanities worth abiding. Hard-luck chambermaid Anne-Marie (Kate Bosworth), whose internal soundtrack we’re sometimes privileged to share (“I want to be the best surfer in the world“), dreams of corporate sponsorship—which would require her to successfully “lay pipe” in an upcoming competition, i.e., navigate the towering breakers off the north shore of Oahu (the very spot featured in the climax of Bruce Brown’s cult 1966 doc, The Endless Summer). Anne-Marie is still haunted by a “near-drowning incident” at the same location—it frequently recurs in flashback, and the commentator sees fit to announce it to the entire beach before she paddles out to do battle with her demons.
There are other distractions along the way. In a presumable Point Break homage, the romantic interest is an NFL quarterback (Matthew Davis) whom she’s tutoring—much to the disapproval of her possibly jealous coach/roommate, Eden (Michelle Rodriguez, playing it dangerously close to self-parody as the designated butch, ethnic sidekick). Director John Stockwell keeps the proceedings casual, and the film is admirably at ease with its dutifully trite plot and porn-worthy dialogue (most of which vanishes under the crash of a wave or the roar of a jet-ski anyway). The souped-up visuals are a mixed blessing. The body-doubling and face-pasting are unfortunately blatant, and the unenhanced 16mm of The Endless Summer, say, holds up pretty well against the tricky (sometimes digitally assisted) maneuvers of Blue Crush cinematographer David Hennings: lots of underwater shots, surfboard POVs, and a few stunning you-are-there moments that venture inside aforementioned pipe. Rampantly doctored as it is, the extended climax is as close as landlubbers will ever get to a double hold-down—and you don’t quite feel like coming up for air.