(director/writer: Agnieszka Holland; screenwriters: Regis Debray/Yves Lapointe; cinematographer: Bernard Zitzermann; editor: Isabelle Lorente; music: Zbigniew Preisner; cast: Gregoire Colin (Olivier Duval/Sebastien Blanche), Marine Golovine (Nadine Duval), Francois Cluzet (Serge Duval), Brigitte Rouan (Elisabeth Duval), Jean-Francois Stevenin (Inspector Druot), Frederic Quiring (Marcel), Faye Gatteau (Young Nadine), Emmanuel Morozof (Young Olivier); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Marie-Laure Reyre; Columbia Tristar Home Video; 1992-France-in French with English subtitles)
“It rips into the nuclear family without any mercy, and in such a pitiless fashion like the way Chabrol operates.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Agnieszka Holland (“The Secret Garden”/”Europa Europa”/”The Third Miracle”) bases this nightmarish tale, part family drama and part mystery story, on a true story that appeared in the French newspapers in 1984. It rips into the nuclear family without any mercy, and in such a pitiless fashion like the way Chabrol operates. It’s cowritten by Holland, Regis Debray and Yves Lapointe.

In a rural village outside of Paris, the seemingly blissful Duvals live an idyllic middle-class life. Serge (Francois Cluzet) is a veterinarian who lives with his wife Elisabeth (Brigitte Rouan) and their 11-year-old daughter Nadine (Faye Gatteau) and 9-year-old son Olivier (Emmanuel Morozof). One day Olivier, the child the mother absolutely dotes on and spoils, is sent on an errand to deliver lunch to his ailing grandmother who lives nearby, like Little Red Riding Hood, but he never gets there. The inexperienced Inspector Druot (Jean-Francois Stevenin), working his first big case, investigates but fails to uncover any leads and fails to thoroughly question the next door neighbor Marcel (Frederic Quiring)—the last one to see the kid alive. Without any reason, the police believe the child is a runaway. Olivier’s disappearance tears the family apart with grief. Mom becomes an hysterical basket case and blames everyone else for her son’s disappearance, Nadine feels guilt-ridden that she always was scaring her brother with fright stories, and the father splits for a veterinary post in Chad when he can’t take anymore his wife’s hysterics.

Six years pass and Inspector Druot is now working in Paris, and when a 15-year-old street hustler (Gregoire Colin) is brought into the station he assumes he’s Olivier without a detailed identity check. Mom accepts him as Olivier with no questions and so does Serge, who has returned from Africa with a monkey. It’s only Nadine (Marine Golovine) who has her doubts when he can’t recall his childhood experiences, but no one in the family wants to go down her path of investigating as they think she’s just resentful of all the attention Olivier is getting.

This hypnotic tale tells of a family disintegrating after a tragedy and then trying to heal themselves; the story revolves around the dysfunctional couple unable to see things clearly because they are both so emotional; an incompetent policeman; a seductive street hustler; a troubled sister who feels rejected, believes in the power of fairy tale and has developed telekinetic powers (can smash light bulbs with her concentration); and the loss of childhood innocence. It explores in depth some dark areas of a family, and touches on the driving emotions that can bring a family together or separate them.