In the Name of My Daughter is a true crime drama that runs into problems that are typical of the subgenre. While the details of the crime are sordid and caught the attention of the press, the specifics are so vague that they fail to seem sinister. Part of the issue may be cultural: the case in question caught the public imagination in France, not the United States, so there is no feeling that we’re eavesdropping on deliciously naughty behavior. That issue notwithstanding, the film suffers from a severe storytelling imbalance. Writher and director André Téchiné focuses on accuracy, not narrative, so the film drags since real life is never as propulsive as the movies.
Part of the frustration is that the two lead roles belong to two of the most popular actors in France. Catherine Deneuve plays Renée Le Roux, the wealthy proprietor of a casino on the French Riviera. Her lawyer is Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), a lecherous young man who wears ill-fitting three-piece suits and wants to penetrate Renée’s inner circle. Their relationship is strictly professional, at least until Renée’s daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel) returns from Africa after a divorce. She strikes up a friendship with Maurice, one that’s deepened when Renée must contend with a mob takeover of her casino, and naturally the friendship becomes sexual. Maurice warns Agnès that he’s bad news and has a habit of making women go crazy. She ignores the warning, so then she soon leaves desperate voicemails and acts out for more attention.
Since this is based on a true story, Téchiné’s direction suffers and succeeds alongside the limits of verisimilitude. The best scene in the movies are throwaway flourishes of character development, which highlight human eccentricity but do not move the plot forward in any significant way. There is a terrific moment where Agnès performs an African dance for Maurice, and her movement grows more free and sexual. This is not seduction, exactly, except we see her from his perspective and the passion is, well, intense. The other standout moment happens where Renée, in an attempt for carefree joy, sings Adriano Celentano’s “Pregueró” with her driver. Deneuve’s performance is wooden, as if the script bores her, yet she comes alive when her character speaks beyond the cold business platitudes that define Renée.
Most of In the Name of My Daughter unfolds in the casino, or gorgeous villas nearby. Still, Téchiné betrays the gorgeous scenery with scenes of backstabbing corporate espionage. Maurice manipulates Agnès into betraying her mother, and the aftermath informs the film’s second half. It’s unclear whether Agnès is a mere victim or has mental health issues, so Haenel plays her as if both are possible. This could have been exciting thriller, full of double-crosses and psychological warfare, except Téchiné slackens the pace so his film is disastrously uneven. Canet, a handsome actor who specializes in roles where his looks hide a sense of menace, attempts to be effective as Maurice. On the catch-creep spectrum he veers toward the latter, although Téchiné dwells on unimportant moments instead of vibrant ones. The effect is meant to be immersive, except a more streamlined narrative would have made it more compelling.
The film clocks in at nearly two hours, and its title still only makes sense for the last twenty. In the Name of My Daughter ends with a flash-forward. Renée wages a legal battle against Maurice, who left France for Panama. Aside from the particulars of the French legal system, which does not require an oath when a witness speaks on behalf of the prosecution, there is no sense of Renée’s determination because there is an uneven approach to between the time periods. By dwelling on the past, there is only a faint sense of Maurice’s capacity for evil and Renée’s need for closure. True crime documentaries tend to weave the past and present in order to create an emotional arc for their audience. Straightforward to a fault, In the Name of My Daughter denies us the consequences of any past transgression, so the eventual punishment arrives like an afterthought.