Fathers and sons are an age old subject for filmmakers (and even a standby for at least a few filmmakers), and although there are less films about women than men, mothers and sons and mothers and daughters are also pretty common (even if too many of the latter are banal comedies rather than serious dramas). THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART from director / writer Jennifer Devoldère, is the rarest breed: a father and daughter drama told primarily from the perspective of the daughter. It’s a fascinatingly complex portrait of family dysfunction, poor communication, and the complicated emotions underneath it all. The film follows the delightful Justine Dhrey and her interactions with her family and new flame. The focal point of the story is her relationship with her father Eli Dhrey which is a bittersweet one riddled with misunderstandings and failed communication.
Michel Blanc stars as Eli, who recently remarried and is expecting a baby with his new (and much younger) wife. He is a many-times married businessman (a wonderful character who’s fussy and eccentric and gets into trouble wherever he goes). His daughter Justine (Melanie Laurent, (Melanie Laurant from Inglorious Basterds, Beginners) is an X-ray technician and would-be artist, currently living with her half-sister Dom (Florence Loiret Caille) and her husband Bertrand (Sébastien Castro). Eli traveled for work while Justine was little, he wrote postcards during this time, yet she never forgave him for the neglect and he for reasons never understood sent the postcards or told Justine about them. The way that Eli finds a connection to Justine is through her ex boyfriends who he awkwardly at first, befriends and then at times hires to work for him. Justine for most of the film is unaware of this, she believes her father to be critical of her when she drew and failed to defend her, when she was bullied as a child. Justine, meanwhile finds him baffling and frustrating — and infuriating in his propensity for making friends with all her ex-boyfriends.
Justine is fickle when it comes to romance — many remark about the five boyfriends she’s gone through just in the last year –but things start looking up when she meets a shoe salesman named Sami (Guillaume Gouix). The only problem left in her life is that of her father, Eli (Michel Blanc), who she fights with constantly. Justine feels emotionally abandoned by Eli, who frequently criticized her as a child; It is through Justine’s job as a mammogram technician that she finds her creative outlet using the equipment after hours to take pictures and make what is referred to as x-ray art. This is introduced to us as her romance with Sami (Guillaume Gouix) develops. The interest that they show towards each other is ideally how all romances should begin, including the song that plays as it happens. Though it is abruptly cut off when her father attempts to form a relationship with Sami of his own accord. Eli simply doesn’t know how to articulate his love for Justine, reserving his passion for golf for people like Atom and praise for Justine’s art for her sister’s ears. “Whenever I’m away, I find I miss them,” he tells Atom, as if such an experience were mysterious and strange.
Eli has another grown daughter, Dom(inique), who is looking to adopt a baby with her husband. After many failed attempts for Dom to get pregnant, and her father’s own success at conceiving another child, convince Dom and Bertrand to adopt.
Eli, who has just married a much younger woman and his third wife, Suzanne (Claude Perron), and the fact they’re expecting a child, frustrates Eli, who knows his relationship with his existing daughters is far from great. Dom and Ju are also appalled that their dad is to become a father again, given the terrible job he did with them. As the family begins to grow, it’s during Suzanne’s pregnancy that her and Justine are able to build a relationship where before there was avoidance. It is not clear why the family as a whole treats Justine as a child, which is eventually done thoughtlessly. It’s when Eli & Suzanne announce that they are pregnant does it challenge Justine’s place as the baby of the family and unbeknownst to her the special place she has in her father’s heart. Possibly as a way to maintain Justine’s place Eli suggests to Suzanne the idea of having an abortion. Her reaction and what she does to him when she hears this is hilarious. Throughout the something’s Eli says or does have you question his character, but eventually see that he is trying though not always done the best way.
In order to work on his connection with Justine, he also decides to become friends with her previous boyfriend, Atom (Manu Payet)…without telling Justine. It is during a golf outing with Atom that Eli and Atom discuss where the responsibility for a parent child relationship lies. Atom believes that it is up to his own father to show interest in his efforts to become a comedian. Eli disagrees believing it to be up to the child, to take the first step.
Shortly after, Eli learns about Justine’s x-ray art he approaches her to be one of her models, she at first refuses. Up to this point has taken pictures of almost everything. At times it is quite amusing as she takes items out of her sister, Dom (Florence Loiret Caille) and brother in law, Bertrand’s (Sébastien Castro) home without their knowledge.
As Eli’s meddling in Justine’s relationships come to a head and Justine moves into the home stretch of her art project. But not everything is what it appears to be, and as the movie progresses we see signs of change in both Eli and Ju. Eli learns he needs to have an operation for his heart, and he opts not to tell Justine about it because he feels she’s stressed enough — a quiet, fatherly move that tears at Justine when she finds out but seems so innocuous and random in the moment.
It seems as if there are only so many routes for The Day I Saw Your Heart to take that would keep the film on the same tonal track, but Devoldère takes a rougher road less traveled, and comes out the other side with a uniquely satisfying ending. Unlike American romantic comedies, the failure of Justine and Eli to communicate is simple and personal. Wisely, Devoldère puts Justine and Eli together for some scenes at the beginning where their relationship is not the focus: the announcement of Suzanne’s pregnancy, a tense lunch a few days later, then separates them, allowing them to fill in the blanks of their trouble relationship by talking to other people (Justine to Sami, Eli to Atom), allowing the audience to sympathize equally with both of them. Devoldère also artfully illustrates the functional communication between Justine and Dom in a sweet scene where Dom has learned she can’t have children, and Justine begins listing all the powerful people in history who were adopted. Chemistry between Sami and Justine is handled with an equally delicate touch — it’s a sweet, casual connection, not a passionate love affair, and yet somehow that makes their connection even more potent. Laurent, carrying the movie, is bright and charming, giving the movie an effervescence that proves crucial. The charms of the film are reserved, but the film has a sweet, authentic humanity from strong writing and an engaging lead performance, lifting it above most of its competitors.
Legendary French actor Michel Blanc brings Eli as if he was born to play this role, but Melanie Laurent as his daughter Ju is the true break-out star of this movie. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack of the movie, with great songs placements from Ben Kweller, Regina Spektor and Nina Simone, among others.
Laurent has an interesting screen quality, sensitive and yet with an occasional edge of impassiveness, an unwillingness to engage in comforting niceties. Writer-director Jennifer Devoldere created the role with Laurent in mind and makes use of that special quality, particularly in a scene in which she looks at her father’s X-ray and detects what could be a serious health problem. She cares, but there’s nothing sentimental about her. The portrait of a contemporary Jewish family in Paris is rounded out by Florence Loiret Caille, who plays Laurent’s sister.
DIRECTED BY Jennifer Devoldère
PRODUCER Farid Lahouassa, Aïssa Djabri
SCRENPLAY Jennifer Devoldère
CAMERA Laurent Tangy
CAST Mélanie Laurent, Michel Blanc, Géraldine Nakache, Florence Loiret-Caille, Claude Perron, Guillaume Gouix, Sébastien Castro, Manu Payet, Jean-Yves Roan, Romain Levy, Alexandre Steiger, Daniel Cohen, Luce Mouchel
MUSIC Nathan Johnson
SOUND Jérôme Wiciak