Iris Murdoch suffered from Alzheimer’s disease toward the end of her life, but it was her husband, the critic John Bayley, who observed that the suffering was strangely contagious. “Alzheimer’s obviously has me in its grip,” he reflected in Elegy for Iris, the second of three memoirs he wrote about his wife’s gradual decline. “Does the caregiver involuntarily mimic the Alzheimer’s condition? I’m sure I do.”
Grand départ poses a similar question. Its patient is Georges (Eddy Mitchell), a divorcé beset, at 65, by the onset of a neurodegenerative disease. His care falls to Romain (Pio Marmaï), his distant son, who soon finds his own life debilitated by his father’s symptoms, which require constant attention and a degree of patience not even the staff of a luxe nursing home are willing to expend.
Romain, we gather, has long been regarded by his father as something of a disappointment — a faceless milquetoast lacking the dynamism and vibrancy of his brother, to whom he feels forever compared. But Alzheimer’s bestows upon its victims a certain blank-slate pliancy, and Romain seizes the opportunity to amend the record: He impresses himself upon his father’s every waking moment, finding in the vacuum of his father’s ailing mind a place to finally belong.
This is an appealing, bittersweet idea, though one undercut by the sense that the director, Nicolas Mercier, has failed to grasp how repellent his own protagonist seems to us. By the end, he’s tipped his hand, and what seemed an incisive portrait is revealed as oddly skewed. A happy ending here feels totally misjudged. This is a sad story. But tragedy needn’t redeem.